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Beyond Rosie: How Women Served 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 WarWWIWWII
NurseNurseArmy Nurse CorpsWomen’s Army Auxiliary Corps
(WAACs/Women’s Army Corps)
SeamstressMatronNavy Nurse CorpsNavy Women’s Reserve (WAVES)
CookCookNavy
“Yeomanette”
Marine Corps Women’s Reserve
MaidLaundressWomen’s Land Army
(Britain)
Coast Guard
Women’s Reserve
LaundressVivandièreClerical
(various)
Women Airforce Service Pilots
(WASPS)
Water-bearerSoliderSwitchboard
operator
Army Nurse Corps
Supply scavengerSpyClerkNavy Nurse Corps
MatrossScoutTypistWomen’s Land Army
(Britain)
SoldierArsenal factory workerStenographerCode
breaker
SpyLadies’ Aid
Society member
TranslatorClerical
(various)
Political
activist
United States
Sanitary
Commission member
Canteen hostessTruck driver
Underground Railroad conductorAmmunition
tester
Airplane mechanic
AbolitionistStock takerLaboratory technician
Salvation Army
volunteer
Parachute 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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