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!
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 War||Civil War||World War I||World War II|
|Nurse||Nurse||Army Nurse Corps||Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed Women’s Army Corps)|
|Seamstress||Matron (a woman who oversaw the “domesticity” of a hospital and its patients; duties varied)||Navy Nurse Corps||Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES)|
|Cook||Cook||Navy Yeowoman/"Yeomanette"||Marine Corps Women’s Reserve|
|Maid||Laundress||Women’s Land Army (Britain)||Coast Guard Women’s Reserve|
|Laundress||Vivandière (a daughter or wife of an officer who aided military camps in a semi-official capacity)||Clerical (various)||Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS)
|Water-bearer||Solider||Switchboard operator||Army Nurse Corps|
|Supply scavenger||Spy||Clerk||Navy Nurse Corps|
|Matross (person who loads and fires cannons)||Scout||Typist||Women’s Land Army (Britain)
|Soldier||Arsenal factory worker||Stenographer||Code breaker|
|Spy||Ladies’ Aid Society member||Translator||Clerical (various)|
|Political activist||United States Sanitary Commission member||Canteen hostess||Truck driver|
|Underground railroad conductor||Ammunition tester||Airplane mechanic
|Abolitionist||Stock taker||Laboratory technician|
|Salvation Army volunteer||Parachute rigger|
|Red Cross volunteer||Radio operator|
|Ambulance driver||Photograph analyzer|
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
- “Women in War: The Role of Women in America’s Wars”
- The Women’s Memorial
- “Researching Female Ancestors in NARA’s Military Records”
- “The Civil War: Women and the Homefront”
- “Women in World War I”
- Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front
More from Family Tree
- Female Ancestors Cheat Sheet
- “Best Records for Finding Female Ancestors”
- Maximizing Military Records: Family Tree Magazine Podcast
Courtney Henderson is the online editor at Family Tree.