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Remembering the Ladies...

Celebrating the Contributions of Women in Uniform

WAVES Recruitment Poster(Published July 2007)

With America’s supply of able-bodied men at an ebb, President Roosevelt looked to the women of the WAVES to turn the tide of the Second World War.

Experts estimated that a force of some nine million would be needed to defeat the Axis powers. Most war planners anticipated a manpower shortage given the extraordinary demand for soldiers and sailors—as well as the continued need for men to perform non-military support duties.

The Roosevelt administration’s solution was, in part, to recruit an unprecedented number of women to tackle non-combat duties as varied as secretarial work, machine repair, and even code breaking. At Treasure Island in San Francisco, women served as gunnery instructors, teaching sailors how to shoot anti-aircraft guns.

Though straightforward in its message, this WAVES recruitment poster is remarkably laden with meaning when considered in context. The stylish femininity of the poster’s subject is typical of the Navy’s efforts to overcome ideas that uniformed service was unwomanly. The message “To Make Men Free” refers to the broad goal of protecting the American way of life; the phrase also illustrates the Navy’s goal of allowing women take over non-combat jobs, thereby freeing men for frontline duty.

Sixty-eight years ago, on July 30, 1942, FDR signed into law the Women’s Reserve Act, which created the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The act sought to “expedite the war effort by releasing officers and men” for duties on the front lines. Over the next three years, 83,000 women joined the WAVES, heeding the rallying slogan, “Free a Man to Fight!”

During the month of July, the Wright Museum commemorates this anniversary as part of its “Object of the Month” program.

For many women, their service in the WAVES and other all-female units in other military branches was their first real experience the wider world. To be sure, many women were deployed near home; but for many more, joining the WAVES and other women’s units gave them an opportunity to travel, meet people from other parts of the country, and take on jobs frequently closed to women during peacetime.

The WAVES’ sister organization, the Coast Guard SPARS, performed a similar function. Established on Nov. 23, 1942, their name was an acronym of the Guard’s motto, “Semper Paratus—Always Ready;” spar is also a nautical term referring to the stout poles used for masts. By the end of the war, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve was 10,000 strong.

Modeled on the WAVES, the SPARS’ primary purpose was also to free up manpower, as illustrated by 1944’s “Song of the SPARS”: “We lucky tars, we thank our stars we are the Coast Guard SPARS in back of ev’ry Jack who goes to sea. We pledge to fight with all our might because we’re Coast Guard SPARS.”

While the large influx of women into active service represented a sea change for the U.S. military, historians are hesitant to describe this phenomenon as entirely revolutionary. Most significantly, during WWII, women did not see direct combat duty—a development that would be nearly a half century away.

Coast Guard Women's Reserve Recruitment Poster
Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS) advertisement, ca. 1943. With the wartime rationing of tires, this visual pun would have resonated among folks on the home front. Wright Museum Collection, gift of Earl B. Smith, Jr.

There were also deep-seated contemporary ideas about gender to contend with. Fathers, husbands, fiancés—and many women themselves—felt that enlisted service was inherently unfeminine.

Recruiters, therefore, proactively countered these assumptions. The Navy, in particular, accommodated 1940s ideas about womanliness by designing very stylish uniforms for enlistees. Pants were deep-sixed in favor of skirts and fitted jackets emphasized recruits’ femininity.

One 1942 WAVES brochure, laden with images of fashionable young women, boasted, “It's a proud moment when you first step out in your brand new Navy blues! The trim uniform was especially designed by the famous stylist Mainbocher to flatter every figure and to make you look—and feel—your best!”

Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS) advertisement, ca. 1943. With the wartime rationing of tires, this visual pun would have resonated among folks on the home front. Wright Museum Collection, gift of Earl B. Smith, Jr.

A 1944 letter to Time echoes this sentiment and also illustrates the good-natured rivalry between the WAVES and the Women’s Army Corps: “All this blah-blah about those WACs. Phooey! We got a gal in the WAVES, Lieut. Commander Tova Louisiana Petersen Wiley. She is in Washington running the whole show by herself. And she’s better looking than all those WACs put together. Why don’t you give the WAVEs and the public a break and run her picture?”

The Wright Museum’s special July lobby display enhances a permanent gallery exhibit devoted to women who served in all branches of the military. Admission to the Wright Museum’s object of the month display is free. Museum gallery admission for non-members is $6 for adults and $5 for seniors, veterans, and active U.S. servicemen and women; children under 8 are admitted to the museum free of charge. Visitors mentioning this Granite State News article will receive a special two-for-one admission discount.

The Wright Museum is located at 77 Center Street in Wolfeboro and is open through October, Monday-Saturday, 10a.m.-4p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4p.m. For more information and directions, call 603/569-1212 or visit

The Wright Museum is a one-of-a-kind non-profit institution dedicated to preserving and sharing the stories of America’s Greatest Generation. With its vast collection of fully-operational military vehicles and extensive exhibits relating to the American Home Front, the Wright Museum is a member-supported national treasure located right here in New Hampshire. In the words of Senator Bob Dole, “The Wright Museum tells the story of [a] great national achievement, a story that, more than ever, today’s generation of Americans—and especially our young people—needs to understand and appreciate.”

Wright Museum

The Wright Museum is a non-profit institution devoted to educating learners of all ages. With its nationally-significant collection of fully-operational military vehicles and vast collections relating to the American Home Front, the Wright Museum is a member-supported national treasure located right here in New Hampshire.

To learn more, call the museum at 603-569-1212 or send an e-mail to