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Part Two: Women in the War

Although not eligible for combat duty, American women were in the thick of the war effort from the start. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, heroic Army, Navy and civilian nurses provided critical care to injured soldiers and civilians. Over the course of the war, military nurses would serve in ten countries and get closer to the front lines than ever before, in addition to caring for wounded soldiers at U.S. military bases and hospitals.

The women who served in the Army and Navy Nurses Corps were among more than 350,000 women who supported the armed forces between 1941 and 1945. Opportunities for service included the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the first women other than nurses to serve in the U.S. Army; the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who flew military planes to destination bases; and the women’s reserve of the U.S. Navy, known as the Waves.

“Women in Defense”
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World War II also greatly changed and expanded the role of American women in the workforce. In ads and posters urging women to take jobs outside the home, “Rosie the Riveter” flexed her muscles and proclaimed “You Can Do It!” – and women did, working in factories, farms, offices and laboratories. With millions of men away at war, women stepped into existing jobs and took on newly created positions working in defense plants and aircraft factories. In 1941, about 12 million U.S. women were working outside the home; by the end of the war, that number had swelled to over 18 million.

These new roles for women were often reflected in Hollywood entertainment of the time, with the studios turning out films showcasing Betty Grable, Claudette Colbert, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake and other stars as nurses, Army and Navy recruits, and defense plant workers. Most of these stars also volunteered offscreen with the Red Cross, the Hollywood Canteen, the USO, or by selling war bonds.

War Films

Food and Magic
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"Women in Defense" (1941)

With commentary written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narration by Katharine Hepburn, “Women in Defense” describes the various types of jobs available through the Office of Civilian Defense. Hepburn encourages women to train and participate in the science and industry fields, and to build on existing skills they can bring to the workforce.


"Women in Defense” Film Notes and Script
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The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith
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"Since Pearl Harbor" (1943)

“Since Pearl Harbor” chronicles the various programs established by the American Red Cross for the war effort. Highlights include the Red Cross’s blood and plasma donation programs, nurse training, the production of first aid supplies, and the care of wounded soldiers.


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"It's Your War, Too" (1944)

This short highlights the jobs carried out by the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) in the U.S. and abroad, dismissing the idea that women cannot contribute to the war effort as “strictly axis propaganda.” Scenes of WACS at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia include both technical training and extracurricular activities provided on the base.


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