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WOMEN WERE THE INVISIBLE COMBATANTS OF World War II. Hundreds of thousands fought—not as partisans or guerrillas but as regular soldiers in uniform. They served on both sides and every front. German women soldiers helped inflict casualties on American and British forces, and in turn they were killed, wounded, or captured. Likewise, Soviet and British women fought bravely. American women, however, did not fight. The questions are: Why not? And what does that fact tell us about gender roles in America?

THE U.S. WAR DEPARTMENT WAS WELL AWARE of the British experience with women soldiers. In 1940—41, the Luftwaffe had lost the Battle of Britain, but it remained a powerful force to be reckoned with. The preferred solution to the problem was strong antiaircraft (AA) units. By 1941, as more and more men were needed in frontline infantry units, the British began using their female Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) soldiers in “protected” units—protected because these home-front soldiers were immune from capture, and their living conditions could be closely monitored. To help emphasize the importance of women in AA units to free more men, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary served in one such brigade.

In August 1942 U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall asked General Dwight Eisenhower, who was in England, to investigate the effectiveness of the British mixed-gender AA units. When Eisenhower gave a positive report, Marshall decided to conduct his own experiment to see if American women could serve the same function. Security was tight— there were no leaks whatever until long after the war.

For his experiment, Marshall wanted to recruit women who had already volunteered for military service. He turned to the only official American women’s organization at that time, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). A total of 21 officers and 374 enrollees were selected for this experiment. From December 15, 1942, to April 15, 1943, these “WAACs,” as they were called, were trained in what had been designated the Military District of Washington, D.C., on two composite antiaircraft gun batteries and the nearby searchlight units. They served with the 36th Coast Artillery Brigade AA.

Colonel Edward W. Timberlake, the immediate commander of these experimental units, had nothing but praise for them: “The experiences… indicate that all WAAC personnel exhibited an outstanding devotion to duty, willingness and ability to absorb and grasp technical information concerning the problems, maintenance and tactical disposition to all types of equipment.” Indeed, the WAACs learned their duties much more quickly than the men in such units, most of whom had been classified for “limited duty service.” Timberlake recommended that in the future, the training periods for women recruits could be shortened. When evaluating the searchlight units, he reported that “the same willingness to learn and devotion to duty has been manifested in these units as in the gun batteries.”

Contrary to generally existing stereotypes of women being physically too weak to perform combat jobs, Timberlake concluded that women met the physical, intellectual, and psychological standards for this mission. In an echo of a widespread belief at the time, he reported, “WAAC personnel were found to be superior in efficiency to men in all functions involving delicacy of manual dexterity.” He specifically listed their operation at the director, height finder, radar, and searchlight stations, and concluded that “their performance of repetitious routine duties is considered superior to that of men.” Indeed, he judged that WAAC personnel could be substituted for men in 60 percent of all AA positions.

Because men and women were going to be working in close proximity, Timberlake was concerned about any possible scandals that might occur. Promiscuity, or even rumors of impropriety, could undermine a unit’s combat effectiveness. He was relieved to find that “the relationship between the Army personnel and WAAC personnel, both enlisted and commissioned, has been highly satisfactory.” No sexual harassment was noted; instead, he found, “a mutual understanding and appreciation appears to exist.”

Timberlake asked his superior, Major General John T. Lewis of the Military District of Washington, to judge the experiment for himself. Soon Lewis was as enthusiastic as Timberlake. Lewis wrote that WAACs could “efficiently perform many duties in the antiaircraft artillery unit.” Their high morale and a paucity of disciplinary problems “increases materially the relative value of WAAC personnel in antiaircraft artillery in fixed positions.” Lewis was so proud of his WAACs that in May 1943 he asked Marshall for authority to continue the experiment, increase the number of WAACs to 103 officers and 2,315 enrollees, and replace half the 3,630 men in his AA Defense Command with these more efficient soldiers.

Marshall now had to make a choice. If he let Lewis have the women, the whole country could immediately hear that women were being sent into combat. What would that do to proposals to draft women? What would conservative southern congressmen, who never liked the WAAC in the first place, do to Marshall’s plans to expand it? Would the general public disapprove? Would women stop volunteering? Would the male soldiers react unfavorably? The Judge Advocate General’s Office said Congress would have to change the existing legislation, and it provided the wording for a suitable amendment: The new Section 20 would read, “Nothing in this act shall prevent any member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps from service with any combatant organization with her own consent.”

Marshall asked his staff for advice. They recommended that he terminate the experiment immediately. General Miller White of the General Staffs personnel division acknowledged that “the War Department believes the experiment…has demonstrated conclusively the practicability of using members of the Corps in this role.” However, since the strength of the WAAC was far below total requirements, he argued that the WAACs could “be more efficiently employed in many other positions for which requisitions are already in hand, and that their use in antiaircraft artillery to release limited service personnel is not justified under present circumstances.”

In other words, the experiment was a success, but the army needed these women for higher-priority—as well as lower-risk—positions. If Germany or Japan had been able to pose a practical threat from the air to the continental United States, then putting women in AA positions might have become a high priority. However, given the relative safety of both coasts by 1943, WAACs were most needed to serve in clerical and administrative positions. The AA units had been using men available only for limited-duty service, and there were more than enough of these men to fill the units’ current needs. Meanwhile, clerical and administrative positions normally filled by women in the civilian world were held by able-bodied men with football fingers who could be in combat instead.

In 1942 Marshall had discovered that some congressmen were so concerned about protecting the female sailors that they amended the law to forbid the naval women’s reserve—Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES—from serving overseas. Marshall had been lobbying Congress to upgrade the WAAC from auxiliary to Kill military status (the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC). He wanted the “WACs” to serve overseas. The War Department withdrew the WAC bill in April 1943, because of the flak over the navy bill. The department resubmitted it in May, and Congress passed it on June 28, with authority for overseas service. However, had Congress learned that Marshall wanted the WACs to serve in combat units, the WAC bill might have been lost forever or many new restrictions placed on the ability of the army to utilize its women soldiers. General Russell Reynolds, director of the military personnel division, summarized the army staffs consensus to eliminate the AA experiment before Congress got wind of it: “It is not believed that national policy or public opinion is yet ready to accept the use of women in field force units.”

Marshall made his decision: He terminated the experiment, reassigned the WACs, ordered the results kept confidential, and never thought of using women in combat again. America had drawn the gender line. If the decision had been made exclusively on the grounds of efficiency and performance, women would have been assigned to AA batteries. Instead, it was based on the army’s need for female office workers, on the state of public opinion, and on the general hostility toward women in nontraditional gender roles in 1943.

TO EVALUATE THE FULL IMPLICATIONS of Marshall’s decision—to explore what might have happened—it is essential to study the British model the United States had been watching closely. Before the war, in 1938, a prominent British engineer, Caroline Haslett, was asked to visit the AA batteries at practice and advise Major General Frederick Pile, the newly appointed commander of the 1st AA Division, if any of these jobs could be held by women. Except for the heavy work of loading ammunition, Haslett reported, women could perform all functions. As the British military began reassigning the most able-bodied antiaircraft men to the field army, Pile decided to experiment with integrated, or mixed, batteries.

The National Service Act of December 1941 drafted 125,000 women into the military over the next three years; 430,000 more volunteered. The largest of the women’s units, Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), began as a woman’s auxiliary to the military in 1938; in 1941 it was granted military status (with pay two-thirds that of men of equal rank). Pile went to the ATS to find women soldiers to serve alongside his men, who were battling the Luftwaffe bombers day and night. Sir James Grigg, under-secretary of state for war, declared Pile’s proposal “breath-taking and revolutionary.” Churchill was enthusiastic. He argued that any general who saved him 40,000 fighting men had gained the equivalent of a victory.

By August 1941 women were operating the fire-control instruments, and men the actual guns, in Richmond Park, near the headquarters of AA Command. By September 1943 over 56,000 women were working for AA Command, most in units close to London. The first mixed regiment to fire in action was the 132nd, on November 21, 1941, and the first “kill” came in April 1942. As Pile observed, “Beyond a little natural excitement and a tendency to chatter when there was a lull, they behaved like a veteran party, and shot an enemy plane into the sea.”

The mixed batteries were commanded by men from AA regiments. Women officers from ATS served as “gender commissars,” whose only official function was to supervise the military bearing of the enlisted women. ATS officers were given a brief course in the general principles of antiaircraft work, but the only women allowed to participate in the actual fighting were the ATS enlistees. The male chain of command handled all instruction and supervision of both men and women in the technical areas.

In practice, the women officers soon took over some of the fire-control operations—a practice condoned by the AA Command and ATS leadership. As one woman explained, “When we arrived at our site we had all been trained for particular jobs, but since then we have learned to do every job in camp except fire the guns—and I bet we could do that too if we were allowed.” Soon women skilled in fire-control operations also learned to set the range and bearing dials on the gun itself a few yards away and to adjust the fuses on the shells. Indeed, they could even take over the complete operation of a light 40mm AA gun. But regulations strictly prohibited women from engaging the firing mechanism. They could not pull the trigger on a man, even a Luftwaffe pilot.

ATS women were soon assigned to searchlight units. Operators were scattered around the gun complex, and therefore each searchlight was some distance from the next. Each unit had to be supplemented with a male soldier firing a tripod-mounted light machine gun to deter any raider who attacked down the beam; the women called him the “Lister ‘Twister” since his other job was to crank the Lister generator providing the power for the light. Some AA officers fretted about what the British public (or the Luftwaffe) might think about these one-man/many-women searchlight units. The Germans seem never to have commented on the matter.

The much-feared sex scandals never materialized in the searchlight or battery units. While this was the official version, and no scandal embarrassed the mixed units, some mixing of the sexes did take place. “One of the girls cheerfully admitted to having been a prostitute before she joined up,” an ATS woman recalled. “There were nights when she returned to the hut with her tunic and shirt in disarray and her bra slung somewhere around her neck.”

At first, middle-aged men (presumably more prudent than younger men) were sent to the mixed batteries. This policy was not a success in creating close-knit units, because “the girls regarded the older men as grandfathers, and they for their part found the girls a bit tiresome.” According to ATS volunteer Muriel I.D. Barker, “There was an absolutely monastic segregation when it came to living quarters. ” One mixed-battery commander noted, “When a couple of girls walk out of a hut in dressing gowns to go to the ablution huts for a bath, nobody takes the slightest notice. This matter of fact atmosphere is what strikes every first time visitor.”

When younger men did arrive, both sexes segregated themselves at work and were not encouraged to mix off-duty. Soon, however, they developed close working relationships, a form of bonding that was vital when the batteries came under fire. As one British battery commander suggested, “Loyalty means loyalty in a mixed battery and ‘devotion to duty’ has a more definite meaning than it has had. Isn’t a woman’s devotion more sincere and lasting than a man’s?” The women developed bonds with fellow AA workers, male and female, which they did not share with former workers and friends. “After experiencing just a couple of months of communal life, I found that the girls (civilians) with whom I had worked before I enlisted were self-interested,” one woman recalled. “We no longer spoke the same language even and there seemed to be a barrier between us. It was even worse with the boys.” Pile observed, “The girls lived like men, fought their fights like men, and alas, some of them died like men.”

The first woman killed in action, Private J. Caveney (148th Regiment), was hit by a bomb splinter while working at the predictor—the device that predicted where the enemy plane would be when the shell finally arrived at the proper altitude. As had been practiced many times in the casualty drills, the woman spotter “stepped in so promptly that firing was not interrupted.” In another attack, Privates Clements and Dunsmore stuck to their posts despite suffering injuries, caused “by being blown over by a stick of bombs dropped across the troop position.” Total ATS battle casualties were 389 killed or wounded.

Morale was high in the mixed batteries; soon the women were allowed to wear the AA Command formation sign on their sleeves and to be called bombardiers and gunners (but only on duty). As one recruit explained, “I don’t know what it was about Ack girls but we always seemed to be smarter than the rest of the service”—and they “acted accordingly.” In 1944 morale in the mixed batteries soared when news came that some were to serve throughout England, not just around London, and even on the Continent. One woman volunteer described the command-post situation at the Great Yarmouth Gun Defended Area during and just after a raid:

The atmosphere in the post was calm, almost subdued and little different from that which had prevailed during our many exercises in the past. This changed as soon as stand-down was given and, although we still had work to do, there was at least a buzz of excitement about the place and cigarettes were freely handed around. Somehow it seemed the thing to do for me to take one and light up as well—even though I didn’t smoke, until then that is.

THE LIVING CONDITIONS FOR BOTH SEXES were often primitive; the ATS women boasted how harsh it was out on the hilltops at night. Nervous uncles were appalled. Pressure soon mounted to provide better conditions for the women. Before such facilities could be built, one commander assembled the thousand women of his brigade and offered to have any of them moved to another location within 24 hours. Only nine women asked for a change, and all of these were clerks who were not involved with the fire-control equipment. One male leader of a mixed unit confessed that he had initially hated the idea of commanding a mixed battery; “but now that I have joined this battery, raised it, watched it grow up and shared in its sorrows and joys, I can say I have never been happier than I am now.”

After six months an AA corps commander told Pile, “It has been an unqualified success.” He suggested that what immediately impressed observers was “the tremendous keenness and enthusiasm displayed by the ATS in assimilating their operational duties. They learn quickly, and once having mastered the subject very seldom make mistakes.” He added, “Contrary once again to expectations, their voices carry well and can be clearly heard in the din of gunfire.” Not surprisingly, Pile concluded that “the experiment had exceeded even my more sanguine hopes.” The mixed unit had achieved a standard of drill and turnout “better than in any male unit; for when the girls took to polishing their predictors, how could the men have dirty guns?”

How did women compare with men doing identical jobs? British AA leaders concluded that women were inferior as spotters, comparable as predictors, and superior as height finders. Perhaps women’s poor records as spotters were due to their previous lack of experience in distinguishing aircraft. Few women came to AA positions having memorized the British and German models. In a similar sense, women sailors often took longer to memorize the differences in ships than did men who may have grown up “playing” sailors or pilots as young boys. Also, women typically took longer to learn a military-rank system and to “spot” a senior officer approaching whom they must salute.

The British experience was more complete than the American four-month experiment, but there were no major differences in the findings. The women excelled in several areas, were comparable in others, and were inferior in a few. But phrasing the question in terms of men versus women in highly misleading. The British were not interested in setting up all-female units in order to promote feminism.Rather, they set up mixed unites so they could shoot down more enemy planes and buzz bombs, while making the most efficient use of the limited human resources available. The effectiveness of a military unit depends on the team performance; team members who are better at lugging heavy shells can be assigned to that task, while those who are better at reading the dials can be doing that. The effectiveness of a team is not the average of each person measured as a Jack of Jill of all trades. Instead, it is a composite of how well each specialized task is performed, along with the synergy that comes from leadership, morale, and unit cohesion. The mixed units did very well indeed.

Britain had to balance public doubts and ingrained gender norms against pressing needs. When Pile and Churchill first assigned women to AA jobs, they encountered resistance from public opinion. It was not so much that the women were in danger—every woman in every British city was in danger of death from German bombs, and tens of thousands did die. But the public would not support a proposal to allow women to fire the AA guns.

Still, the British are a practical people, especially when bombs are falling. They soon decided, “A successful air defense was an even stronger political imperative than the possible moral and physical dangers to the daughters of the nation.” The government did concede some details to public opinion by not formally classifying these AA jobs as combat and by symbolically prohibiting the women from pulling the lanyard. Nevertheless, the mixed AA crews were as much combat teams as were the airplane crews they shot down.

One factor in whether nations employed women in combat roles was the urgency of the need for combat soldiers. The “tail-to-teeth” ratio (rear to frontline distribution of personnel) was very high in the United States, because Marshall felt that only ninety combat divisions would be needed, and that the war would be largely won by the efficiency of the supply and support mechanism. Women were not needed in AA units (actually, few men were needed), but they were urgently needed to handle clerical and administrative jobs. Marshall thought caution the better part of valor when he decided not to risk a confrontation with Congress and public opinion on the matter of gender roles.

IN THE MEANTIME, HOW WERE OTHER ARMIES reacting to shortages in manpower? Hitler had always insisted that women remain at home and be full-time wives and mothers; Nazi women were to guarantee the survival of the Aryan race in the labor room, not on the battlefield. Even single women were not recruited for jobs in industry at the beginning of the war. By 1941, however, women were holding jobs in industry and serving in female auxiliary units, doing administrative work for the military. After the invasion of Russia, German auxiliaries increasingly began replacing men who had been sent to the Eastern Front. Berlin did monitor its Finnish ally, which successfully used “Lottas” as auxiliaries to the army, freeing up men for the front lines. But it was not until January 1943, when the war had clearly begun to turn sour and Albert Speer became the economic czar, that Germany began full mobilization of its human resources. Even so, measures to conscript women into industry were introduced “only with extreme reluctance, and were never efficiently implemented.” Not surprisingly, then, measures to draft women into the military including Goebbels’s 1944 Second Order for the Implementation of Total War—were even less well enforced.

German women, however, did serve in the military; in all, 450,000 joined the women’s auxiliaries, in addition to the units of nurses. By 1945 women were holding approximately 85 percent of the once all-male billets as clerical workers, accountants, interpreters, laboratory workers, and administrators, together with half of the clerks and junior administrators in high-level field headquarters. (The Guidelines for Emergency Employment of Women commented, “No work is to be given to women that requires particular presence of mind, determination, and fast action.”) These German women, in uniform and under military discipline, were not officially referred to as female soldiers. They were unofficially nicknamed Blitzmädchen. While it may seem surprising that the Nazis ever allowed women to serve in the military in any capacity, to test our hypothesis we must examine the German model to see if women held more than combat-support or combat-service-support positions.

Antiaircraft units became increasingly central to Germany’s war effort, so on July 17, 1943, at the urging of Speer, Hitler decided to have women trained for searchlight and AA positions. Basic training was to take four weeks. These AA auxiliaries were placed as follows: three to operate the instrument to measure distances, seven to operate the radio measuring instrument, three to operate the command instrument, and occasionally one woman to serve as a telephone platoon leader. By the end of the war, between 65,000 and 100,000 women were serving in eleven units with the Luftwaffe. Some searchlight units were eventually 90 percent female.

Similar to the British experience, German women who joined AA units became “proud to be serving as AA-Auxiliaries” and were “burning soon to be trained well enough to be able flawlessly to stand our ground at the equipment.” These women developed the unit cohesion that had been evident in the British AA units. As one veteran recalled, “We have been raised with the same kind of spirit, we had the same ideals, and the most important was the good comradeship, the ‘one for all.’ “Here again, these AA-Auxiliaries emphasized their continued femininity. Another, Lotte Vogt, explained, “In spite of all the soldier’s duties we had to do, we did not forget that we were girls. We did not want to adopt uncouth manners. We certainly were no rough warriors—always simply women.”

As in Britain, although the German women serving with AA units learned all aspects of the guns, they were forbidden to fire them. Hitler and his advisers firmly believed that public opinion would never tolerate these auxiliaries firing weapons. Indeed, German propaganda warned all women in the auxiliaries not to become “gun women” (flintenweiber). In February 1944 one of the naval auxiliaries wrote to a friend who had been captured:

I’ve been sent to the Naval Auxiliary Service. I am now a soldier who replaces you in the country. The service is not difficult as we are not raised to be gun women. What is good about it is that one is also treated as a woman. Obviously we must conduct ourselves honorably as women…We are amongst sailors but we have nothing to do with them.

“Gun women” was the contemptuous German term for Soviet women who carried or fired weapons. Many Soviet women were without uniforms and thus considered de facto partisans. The Germans looked upon armed Soviet women as “unnatural” and consequently had no compunction about shooting such “vermin” as soon as they were captured. The verbal degradation of enemy females made it easier for German soldiers to overcome any inhibitions about harming women. Nazi propaganda also mocked American Wacs as traitors to their sex because they performed functions in the army under the pretense of emancipation.

In November 1944 Hitler issued an official order that no woman was to be trained in the use of weapons. The only exception was for women in the remote areas of the Reich that could be easily overrun by the Soviets. According to German propaganda, in one such area, a 22-year old Pomeranian woman, “Erna,” was awarded the Iron Cross (second class) when she, together with a male sergeant and private, destroyed three tanks with bazookas. Indeed, the propaganda suggested that the bazooka was the most feminine of weapons. (Bazookas were lightweight and did not have the heavy recoil that only a large body could absorb.)

The Freikorps Adolf Hitler was formed in 1945 and trained in the use of bazookas, hand grenades, and automatic rifles. Lore Ley, daughter of a leading Nazi, once knocked out a Soviet armored scout car and took military documents and money from its commander. In all, thirty-nine German women received the Iron Cross (second class) for their duty near the front. The majority of these women, however, were nurses. Hitler’s test pilots Hanna Reitsch and Melitta Schilla-Stauffenberg were the only women to receive the Iron Cross (first class).

Nazis resisted weapons training for women auxiliaries serving with the army or Luftwaffe until the final stages of the war. As Reichsleiter Martin Bormann sputtered to Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels, as late as November 1944, “As long as there is still one single man employed at a work place in the Wehrmacht that could as well be occupied by a woman, the employment of armed women must be rejected.” But, more and more desperate every day, Hitler capitulated in February 1945 and created an experimental women’s infantry battalion. Ironically, this unit’s mission was in part to shame cowardly men who were evading their natural gender role of dying for their country—thousands of men were deserting in 1945. In any event, the war ended before the women’s battalion could be raised and trained.

IN CONTRAST TO THE GERMANS, the Soviets mobilized their women early, bypassing the auxiliary stage entirely. About 800,000 women served in the Red Army during World War II, and over half of these were on the front lines. Many were trained in all-female units. About a third of the total number of women serving were given additional instruction in mortars, light and heavy machine guns, or automatic rifles. Another 300,000 served in AA units and performed all functions in the batteries—including firing the guns.

When asked why she had volunteered for such dangerous and “unwomanly” work, AA gunner K.S. Tikhonovich explained, “‘We’ and ‘Motherland’ meant the same thing for us.” Sergeant Valentina Pavlovna Chuayeva from Siberia said she had wanted to settle the score and avenge the death of her father: “I wanted to fight, to take revenge, to shoot.” Her request was denied, with the explanation that being a telephone operator was the most vital work she could do. She retorted that telephone receivers did not shoot. Finally, a colonel gave her the chance to train for the AA. “At first my nose and ears bled and my stomach was completely upset… It wasn’t so terrible at night, but in the day time it was simply awful.” She recalled the terror of battle: “The planes seemed to be heading straight for you, right for your gun. In a second they would make mincemeat of you…It was not really a young girl’s job.” Eventually she became commander of an AA gun crew.

Private Nonna Alexandrovna Smirnova, AA gunner from the Georgian village of Obcha, did not like the training program, in which men with little education, often mispronouncing words, served as instructors. In addition, the uniforms they received had been designed for men. Smirnova, the smallest person in her company, usually wore a size 34 shoe but was issued an American-made boot that was size 42. “They were so heavy that I shuffled instead of marching.” (In every nation the women’s services had trouble with the quartermaster’s notion of what a shoe should be.)

The noncombat-combat classification that preoccupied the Americans, British, and Germans proved an unaffordable luxury to the Soviets. In a nation totally controlled by the Kremlin, organized public opinion was hardly a factor. Implicit public opinion regarding the primacy of traditional gender roles was another matter, but the available evidence does not speak to that. (The Kremlin controlled the media and the historiography—and even the memories of World War II; perhaps someday glasnost, if it continues, will loosen more tongues.) Article 13 of the universal military-duty law, ratified by the Fourth Session of the Supreme Soviet on September 1, 1939, enabled the military to accept women who had training in critical medical or technical areas. Women could also register as part of a training group, and after they were trained they could be called up for active duty by the armed forces.

Once war broke out, these Soviet women—together with their fathers, brothers, and husbands—went to the military commissariats and to party and Komsomol organizations to help fight. They served as partisans, snipers, and tank drivers. Women constituted three regiments of pilots: one of fighter pilots, the 586th Fighter Regiment; and two of bomber pilots, the 587th and the most famous of the three, the 588th Night Bombers, who proved so effective at hitting their targets that the Germans nicknamed them the “night witches.” According to one veteran German pilot, “I would rather fly ten times over the skies of Tobruk [over all-male British ack-ackl than to pass once through [Russia where] the fire of Russian flak [was] sent up by female gunners.” In all, Soviet women made up about 8 percent of all combatants. Between 100,000 and 150,000 women were decorated during the war, including 91 who received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the highest award for valor.

THE SOVIETS BOASTED OF THEIR WOMEN IN COMBAT, and even sent some abroad on publicity tours. (When Junior Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko met with reporters in Washington, she was dumbfounded to be asked about lingerie instead of how she had killed 309 Germans.) But Germany, Britain, and the United States did not publicize the fact that women were serving in combat roles anywhere, although the generals realized that the women soldiers who were in AA units had combat missions after all. They were simply shooting at the enemy, and he—or she—was shooting back. The British discovered that Luftwaffe gunners fired at everyone around the searchlights or the guns, not just at the men there.

As Shelford Bidwell, the distinguished historian of artillery and of the ATS, concluded, “There is not much essential difference between manning a G.L. set or a predictor and firing a gun: both are means of destroying an enemy aircraft.” He added, “The situation became more absurd when the advance of automation was such that the guns were fired by remote control when on target, from the command post.” After June 1944, most of the targets were V-1 robots, but the women still were not permitted to shoot. What stopped the British, Americans, and Germans from allowing AA women to pull the trigger was their sense of gender roles—a sensibility that had not yet adjusted to the necessity of women in combat.

Apart from cartoons, I have never seen an American reference to fighting enemy women. In 1945 the Bill Mauldin character Willie tipped his hat to a Blitzmädchen he was taking, at gunpoint, to a POW compound. She wore a helmet, a Luftwaffe jacket, and a civilian skirt; a hand grenade was still tucked in her belt, probably because he was too much of a gentleman to search her. The cartoon succinctly captured the uncertainty of an unexpected change in sex role.

Certainly, many Japanese women soldiers died in hand-to-hand fighting on Okinawa. The Japanese drafted high-school students, male and female, into militia units that were hurled into combat, and killed to the last person. The saga of the all-female “Lilly Brigade” is now part of Japanese folklore. If MacArthur had invaded Kyushu, he probably would have encountered thousands of women infantry.

Understanding the reaction of servicemen to women in combat involves study of the structure of gender roles in society at large and the military in particular, and it calls for a comparative framework. In the United States, most male soldiers were strongly opposed to the WAC and urgently advised their sisters and friends not to join. Scurrilous rumors to the effect that WACs were sexual extremists (either promiscuous or lesbian) chilled recruitment and froze the WAC far below its intended size. The rumors were generated almost entirely by word-of-mouth among servicemen. In point of fact, such rumors were false: The servicewomen were much less sexually active than servicemen, and rather less active than comparable civilian women. The rumors therefore reflected a strong hostility—but to what?

Many senior officers originally had been opposed to the WAC, but they almost unanimously reversed their position when they realized how effective the women were and how many men could thus be freed for combat. Most senior officers had been trained as engineers (especially at the military academies) and perhaps were more sensitive to efficiency than to human sensibilities.

Some enlisted men with noncombat jobs were aghast at the idea (explicit in recruiting posters) that women who enlisted would send a man to the front. As one officer in the Pacific explained:

They [WACs] are good workers and much more so than many of our regular men. You perhaps have heard many wild stories about them but I wouldn’t believe everything that I hear. In comparison, our men are a lot worse. So many men talk about them and it seems they are the ones who haven’t seen a WAC, or doesn’t know anything about them, or even is a little jealous. Then again some of the girls take over easy jobs that some of the men hold and they don’t like it when they have to get out and work.

Furthermore, young men saw military service as a validation of their own virility and as a certificate of manhood. If women could do it, then it was not very manly. The exhilaration of combat can be like an aphrodisiac, if not a sexual experience in its own right. Perhaps like the “Tailhookers” of recent days, they felt this should be forbidden territory to females.

The question of women in combat has generated a vast literature that draws from law, biology, and psychology, but seldom from history. The restrictions against women in combat that have persisted for decades in the United States have not been based on experimental research (quite the reverse), or on consideration of the effectiveness of women in combat in other armies. They have been primarily political decisions made in response to the public opinion of the day, and to the climate of opinion in Congress.

Still horrified by memories of Belleau Wood, Okinawa, and Ia Drang, many Americans to this day visualize “combat” as vicious hand-to-hand knife fighting. Major Everett S. Hughes displayed a keen insight into the issue in a report to the General Staff:

We have handicapped ourselves by numerous man-made technical definitions of such things as Combat Zone…Some of us conclude that women have no place in the Theater of Operations, others that women have no place in the combat zone. We fail to consider that the next war is never the last one. We forget, for example, that what was the Combat Zone during the World War may be something else during the next war. We use technical terms that are susceptible to individual interpretation, and that change with the art of war, to express the idea that women should not participate here, there, or yonder. We are further handicapped by man-made barriers of custom, prejudice and politics, and fail to appreciate how rapidly and thoroughly these barriers are being demolished.

Hughes’s report was made in 1928, and it was not rediscovered until after the war. It was not feminism but fear of the lack of sufficient manpower to fight World War II that served as the catalyst for Marshall’s experiment, Pile’s mixed batteries, the Nazi Blitzmüdchen, and the Soviet “night witches.” Necessity, once it was dire enough, could overcome culture.” If the need for women’s service be great enough they may go any place, live anywhere, under any conditions,” concluded Major Hughes.

Success in combat is a matter of skill, intelligence, coordination, training, morale, and teamwork. The military is a product of history and is bound by the lessons it has “learned” from history. The problem is that the history everyone has learned about the biggest war of all times has airbrushed out the combat roles of women. MHQ

D’ANN CAMPBELL is dean of arts and sciences at Austin Peay State University. This was published in a somewhat different form in the Journal of Military History (April 1993).


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1993 issue (Vol. 6, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Women, Combat, and the Gender Line.

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