Beyond Rosie: Women in Wartime

By Courtney Henderson
“Pay day,” Third WAAC Training Center, Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga., near Chattanooga, Tenn., 1930-1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Women are often the unsung heroes during war, especially prior to World War I. (It was during that conflict they were finally permitted to enlist.) Because they often serve in unofficial, unrecognized capacities, documentation for women in wartime can be difficult (even impossible) to locate. Still, no official record doesn’t equal no service!

WWII Women's Army Corps recruitment poster, an example of women in wartime.
Women’s Army Corps recruitment poster used during WWII. (Library of Congress)

As with any female ancestor research, sometimes it takes a little thinking outside the box to discover a wartime connection. Perhaps your relative aided the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, or maybe she worked in a factory during World War II. Records such as meeting minutes or employment documents may be available for research. A great place to start is your local library.

From nurses to abolitionists to test pilots, here are some of the many ways women aided in the major U.S. conflicts of the past. Was your female ancestor among them?

Revolutionary WarCivil WarWorld War IWorld War II
NurseNurseArmy Nurse CorpsWomen’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed Women’s Army Corps)
SeamstressMatron (a woman who oversaw the “domesticity” of a hospital and its patients; duties varied)Navy Nurse CorpsNavy Women’s Reserve (WAVES)
CookCookNavy Yeowoman/"Yeomanette"Marine Corps Women’s Reserve
MaidLaundressWomen’s Land Army (Britain) Coast Guard Women’s Reserve
LaundressVivandière (a daughter or wife of an officer who aided military camps in a semi-official capacity)Clerical (various)Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS)
Water-bearerSoliderSwitchboard operatorArmy Nurse Corps
Supply scavengerSpyClerkNavy Nurse Corps
Matross (person who loads and fires cannons)ScoutTypistWomen’s Land Army (Britain)
SoldierArsenal factory workerStenographerCode breaker
SpyLadies’ Aid Society memberTranslatorClerical (various)
Political activistUnited States Sanitary Commission memberCanteen hostessTruck driver
Underground railroad conductorAmmunition testerAirplane mechanic
AbolitionistStock takerLaboratory technician
Salvation Army volunteerParachute rigger
Red Cross volunteerRadio operator
Ambulance driverPhotograph analyzer
Pilot/test pilot

This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. It is, however, fascinating to see how the list of roles grows longer with each major conflict. So yes, women have played—and continue to play—an enormous role in serving our country. “We can do it!” because we always have, and always will.

Women in Wartime Research Resources

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Courtney Henderson is the online editor at Family Tree.

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