Women in World War II

Spring 2018

Kathryn Bernheim was one of the original 27 female WAFS (Women’s Air Force Service) pilots.

On Friday, May 25, 2018, The International Museum of World War II opened a new exhibition exploring the role of women in World War II. “Women in WWII: On the Home Fronts and the Battlefronts” highlights women in every major combatant nation and the vital contributions they made on home fronts and battlefronts. This unprecedented exhibition will feature more than 100 artifacts illuminating the diversity of roles women served and illustrating their profound impact on the war effort.

The Museum will also be displaying, for the first time ever, a series of original Ansel Adams photographs that document the role of women as part of the war effort in Massachusetts. In 1942, the government commissioned Adams to document members of the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) training for assistance in five main areas: Medical, Transportation, Communications, Canteen, and Air Raid Protection Services. These photographs reflect a departure from Adams’ well-known landscape photographs, revealing high-contrast compositions of corps members reviewing maps, preparing meals, practicing rescue missions, and standing in formation.

“This exhibition brings to light the very important roles women fulfilled during World War II,” said IMWWII founder and director Kenneth W. Rendell. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase and honor women’s service to the war effort. Women had a duty to protect and sustain the home front for those on the battlefront and to preserve morale for all the citizens of their respective nations. As this exhibition showcases, women volunteered and actively took on whatever roles needed in order to serve their country.”

During the war, women were charged with maintaining the home, caring for children, rationing food and clothing, planting victory gardens, and collecting supplies needed for the war effort. Women also went to work in war production factories and filled other traditionally male jobs in order to free men for military service. Most women did not serve in combat roles—with the exception of the Soviet Union—but they did join auxiliary services in support of the armed forces.

British Auxiliary Territorial Service

“Women in WWII: On the Home Fronts and the Battlefronts” explores that while women in all countries shared these common wartime experiences, each country’s female population faced unique challenges as well. Some of the key differences among various nations and war efforts highlighted in the exhibition include:

United States: American women served in an incredibly broad range of roles during the War. Although they never were conscripted into service, approximately 350,000 women served in auxiliary roles, both at home and abroad, for the Army Corps, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, Army and Navy Nurse Corps. More than 1,000 women learned to fly all types of planes, sending them from the production lines to bases of departure in the U.S. Other women served on medical evacuation planes and performed advanced medical procedures. Nurses served on the front lines and many consequently lost their lives.

 Great Britain: As only one of two countries to draft women very early in the War, Great Britain passed the National Service Act of December 1941 which made women’s conscription legal. More than 640,000 British women served in the variety of auxiliary services including the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Although women might handle massive searchlights to spot enemy aircraft intent on bombing British cities, they were not allowed to actually fire any weapons for fear of the negative psychological impact. In addition, British women were pressured to send their children out of the cities to the safety of the countryside as part of “Operation Pied Piper.”

Germany: The Nazi regime’s Cult of Motherhood, with its emphasis on women’s roles as wives and mothers, began before the War and continued during its early years. All German women were encouraged to have at least four children to populate the growing German Reich. The Cross of Honor of the German Mother (Mutterkreuz) was awarded annually to those German mothers who met certain moral criteria and produced a certain number of children. The Lebensborn program was an SS-initiated state-supported program designed to increase the birth rate of “Aryan” children.

Japan: Similar to Germany, the Japanese government initially emphasized women’s roles as wives and mothers. Building on traditional neighborhood associations, women were called upon to prepared packages for soldiers at the front, sew 1,000-stitch belts for good luck, ration food and clothing, and raise money for war bonds. When Allied firebombing began on the Japanese homeland, women were called upon to do the dangerous work on fire brigades and to fulfill other civil defense roles.

USSR: The USSR was one of two countries that drafted its women during WWII, and it was the only country that put its women into combat. Approximately 800,000 women served in the Red Army with more than half of them in front-line duty units. Women were trained as pilots and snipers and they were taught to use mortars, light and heavy machine guns and automatic rifles. Similar to many other nations, Soviet women also served in medical units and worked in industry, transport, and agriculture to free up enlisted men to fight.

Resistance Fighters: In occupied nations, women assumed great risks to conduct covert operations against German occupiers. They helped downed Allied airmen escape to safety using secret or “underground” escape routes. Other women operated contraband radios to transport messages and weapons under the noses of the enemy occupiers for which they could be killed. Sophie Scholl, a German university student and member of the White Rose resistance group, was caught with several fellow members and publicly executed by the Nazis.

Holocaust: German women served as concentration camp guards and nurses alongside Jewish women and children who labored and died in the camps.