Making WAVES

A brief overview of the Women in the United States Naval Reserve during World War II

By Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man I'd Join the Navy, Naval Reserve, or Coast Guard (1918) by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In World War I, the US Navy for the first time employed women in uniform large numbers outside of the medical fields. As the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 had conspicuously omitted mention of gender as a condition for service, women were able to enlist in mid-March 1917 prior to American entry in the war. By war's end, over 11,000 Yeomen (Female), or "Yeoman (F)" were serving in the Navy in an array of enlisted clerical, secretarial and other non-combat roles in the United States.

Recruiting posters did not portray the Yeoman (F), also known as “Yeomanettes,” in a professional fashion. In this 1917 recruiting poster painted by Howard Chandler Christy, a model in a navy uniform is portrayed as a pin-up, a wholesome, youthful appearance with clear implications that serious service was a masculine profession.

On the Same Team / Enlist in the Waves.. by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Yeomen (F) program ended after World War I, but prior to American entry in World War II a movement began to bring women back into naval service. After considerable discussion and debate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation on July 30, 1942 establishing the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Known by the acronym WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Women’s Reserve allowed women to serve as officers and as enlisted ratings. Although restricted to service in the continental United States with prohibitions aboard warships or combat aircraft, the WAVES shared a common purpose with the pioneers of World War I: free up men for overseas service.

Women 20 to 36 Earn a Navy Rating ... Join the Waves ... by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Mildred H. McAfee, president of Wellesley College, took a leave of absence to serve as director of the WAVES. Commissioned as a lieutenant commander – the first female officer in the history of the Naval Reserve – she oversaw the growth and direction of the WAVES with an emphasis on professionalism and equality with male counterparts.

Under McAfee’s leadership, the advertising campaign for the WAVES emphasized ladylike, professional appearances to appeal to American organizations as well as women themselves. The Navy desired women with college education and professional experience and noted opportunities for advancement within the ranks.

Enlist in the WavesSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In stark contrast with the World War I poster featured previously, the WAVES advertising cut a professional uniform appearance of women in uniform.

There's a Man-Size Job for You in Your Navy / Enlist in the Waves ... by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Although forbidden to serve aboard warships or in combat aircraft, imagery of both appeared in posters. As men fought overseas, women served at home.

Don't Miss Your Great Opportunity / the Navy Needs You in the Waves by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Uniforms provided the WAVES with a powerful recruitment tool. Thanks to the influence of Josephine Forrestal, a former fashion editor for Vogue and the wife of James Forrestal, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the New York fashion house of Mainbocher designed the Women’s Reserve uniforms for free. For thousands of women, the WAVES offered a stylish, professional uniform appearance. Women received a similar color scheme as male counterparts, with a summer while uniform and a winter navy blue wool uniform.

It's a Woman's War Too! Join the Waves ... by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

As with advertising for men, WAVES recruiting posters emphasized the patriotic element of service.

Bring Him Home Sooner / Join the Waves by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Patriotism took many forms in WAVES advertising, with the element of family appearing several times in the work of artist John Falter.

That Was the Day I Joined the Waves ... by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In contrast with the loving hug between a male sailor and his female partner, here the male companion, "Dan," is abstractly portrayed by a telegram informing his female partner of being wounded in action. The implication here is that his female partner enlisted in familial unity and obligation to do her part and honor his sacrifice to the nation.

You'll Be Happy Too, and Feel So Proud Serving as a Wave in the Navy by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Almost 90,000 women served in the WAVES during World War II from every state in the nation. The vast majority of women were white and middle class, presenting a degree of class uniformity. African Americans were unable to join the WAVES until December 1944, and the war ended before many women completed their recruit training.

Will Your Name Be There? U.S. Navy : by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Countless women who joined the WAVES received local recognition in the form of small window cards displayed in local post offices, libraries, even department stores.

Wish I Could Join Too! Serve Your Country in the Waves ... by United States. NavySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

As with World War I, the Navy demobilized women in uniform. But the success and accomplishments of the WAVES, together with the service of women in the Army, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard convinced senior military and political leaders that women had earned a permanent place in the nation’s military.

On July 30, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act into law allowing the women to serve in the regular Army or Navy on a permanent basis. The law, however, retained prohibitions on women serving in combat roles which were only lifted during the War on Terrorism. Nevertheless, the WAVES served as an inspiration during World War II, and continue to do so today.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
World War Two: The Flying Frontier
75 years since World War II ended, join the Smithsonian Institution in exploring the role aeronautics played
View theme
Google apps