By the time the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, the war had been raging around the world for over two years…although honestly it had been going a little longer than that. While the war officially started in Europe during the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Asia had been at war since at least 1937 with the Second Sino-Japanese War.
While there were women in military service in the United States before the war—serving as nurses primarily—women began to be mobilized as never before as the country transitioned into one geared primarily for the creating and making and doing of war (the argument can be made that we’ve never really left that posture).
Eventually, over 350,000 women served in the United States military over the course of the war.
Unlike in World War I, these women were in all kinds of fields—mostly administrative—but many were in the medical field, logistics and supply. And they were deployed all over the world, often very close to the front lines, although they were not allowed to serve officially in combat.
Aside from the Marine Corps (where they were still segregated), they served in separate branches attached to the Army, Navy and Coast Guard: the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps or WAC), the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES), and the SPARS.
Some of these organizations, like the WASP, were not actually military at all—despite the uniforms and the pay—although the services they performed were 100% military affiliated and often more dangerous than many military positions. Some pilots pulled targets for live fire practice and others tested new military aircraft. If that doesn’t qualify for a military pension and benefits and the right to be buried at Arlington, I don’t know what does (side note: it took until 1977 for these women to be granted veteran status).
The Soviet Union was notable in that women served alongside men in the front lines and in the air. Despite the party line of gender equality, these women faced a lot of discrimination from their male counterparts. Most famous were snipers like Lyudmila Pavlichenko and the Night Witches (the all-woman 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed the 46th Taman Guards), but many others served throughout the spectrum of military operations.
Let’s talk scope. Women existed and operated in all levels of warfare, more prominently than ever before. Because of this, writing a blog post about women in World War II would end up becoming a dissertation. Hell, writing about the novels of women in this period would be a dissertation, particularly since there was a huge boom in publishing this past year. So. Many. Books.
And of course there are the women spies and resistance fighters of World War II. There are many, many books about them. So many, in fact, that I could probably devote and entire series of posts on them. Or another dissertation.
The fascination of course, lies in the intersection of our interest in all things spy/special ops and all things World War II, to the point of fetishization, romanticism and extreme nostalgia that has become somewhat mythologized (not just in spies/special operatives, but in The Greatest Generation overall). This is not to devalue anything our grand parents and great-grandparents saw, did or survived, but to attempt to justify why Barnes and Noble has 10 shelves dedicated to World War II and 1 to say, the Vietnam War (gross exaggeration, of course). If you’re interested in reading about women spies, D-Day Girls by Sarah Rose is one of the more recent books.
Long story short, I am not including books on women spies and resistance fighters, because that devolves into considering all sorts of non-military but military affiliated peoples, such as those who rescued victims of genocide and the Holocaust (The Undaunted Women of Nanking by Hua-Ling Hu, and Irena’s Children by Tilar Mazzeo spring to mind) and again, that would take a post of its own. These women are courageous and heroes in their own right, but not the subject of this post.
I’m also not going to provide books about the four million women who entered the workforce during the war—the Rosie the Riveters—who sweated and bled long hours, churning out hundreds of thousands of military craft while breaking down misconceptions of a woman’s ability to do…well, anything. These women were also courageous, and when the war was over, they were told to pack up and go home to make space for the returning men. Many had had their minds and world expanded, and then were sent back into the box from which they’d freed themselves. Let’s just say that the modern women’s rights era (and the Civil Rights Era) was heavily fertilized during the war. However, still not the focus of this blog post that is beginning to resemble a dissertation.
Women in the military forces (specifically Allied forces, I will be giving no space to Nazis) are the focus.
Anywho, jumping off the soapbox. Here are the books:
There are more of these, but these seem to capture the overall experience of women in uniform during World War II. I did include Coming Out Under Fire, even though it mostly covers gay men in the military, as it does include how lesbians and bisexual woman (it’s very LGB without mention of trans folks, very 90s) dealt with being queer and a woman in the military during a period where both were frowned upon heavily. Our Mother’s War is a book I’ve owned for some time but haven’t read, but it looks really interesting.
A mixture of general history and memoirs, this list is far from inclusive, as there are many more books about nurses serving in WWII. However, these were some of the bigger titles I saw, and I hope captured a bit of the overall experience on the European and Pacific fronts.
The WASPs didn’t operate for long—about two years—but had an enduring legacy for women in aviation and in the military, particularly as pilots. During this short period, the corps of about 1800 women flew over 60 millions miles using pretty much every American military aircraft being built, towed targets for live fire exercises, simulated strafing missions and transported cargo—all while being as feminine and lady-like as possible, and dealing with the misogynic assholes of men (particularly military pilots). Black women and many other women of color were banned from serving as pilots, but two Chinese American women did join and fly for the WASPs.
Other Branches (WAC, WAVES, SPAR, Marines)
I didn’t find a whole bunch of books about the WACs (and really nothing about the WAVES), so perhaps I wasn’t looking very closely or as much as I should have been. I did, however, find two wonderful books about Black women in service and all of this shit they put up with—from being segregated and enduring the racist and sexist discrimination from inside and outside the military (although in France and England they experienced less discrimination from non-Americans) while fighting for a democracy they didn’t experience, to being trained as mechanics and being forced to work as janitors. I also found a gem of a book called Serving Our Country, which I haven’t read but seems very interesting as it focuses on Japanese-American women in the military, who served while their country put their families into concentration camps. I also found a book on women war correspondents and a book about the WACs as a whole. If you know of more, particularly on the WAVEs, Marines and SPAR, please let me know!
Biographies and Memoirs
I tried to find a wide variety of biographies during this time. Although the majority were WACs, I did my best to showcase the variety of experiences women faced in service across the world. I did find one autobiography of a Marine!
There are many, many more books about British women during the war—initially I was looking at women pilots in WWII and had so many that I made a separate section for British women as well. But lots of books about British women nurses, war correspondents, and others are out there—along with many, many, many novels.
There have been a lot of books about the Night Witches in the past five years. Most of those were novels—the most recent and famous of which was The Huntress by Kate Quinn (on my TBR). My favorite novel is definitely Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz, a young adult novel about a pilot with the squadron. However, I do love the actual history, particularly A Thousand Sisters by Elizabeth Wein (author of Code Name Verity). It’s young adult, but definitely readable for adults who want to know more about the history, particularly after the vaults were opened in the former Soviet Archives and many of the restrictions were lifted.
Women at War
While two books feature snipers, Svetlana Alexeivich’s The Unwomanly Face of War covers the whole Soviet woman experience, told in their own words. It’s been on my TBR for a while and I need to read it. I will warn you that Pavlichenko’s autobiography is probably not the most honest, as she was under quiet a few restrictions in what she was/was not allowed to discuss after the war due to the Soviet Union’s…policies.
I’d love to know more of your favorite books about women serving during WWII! Did I miss a favorite? Also, if you know of any books about trans women or women of color serving during this time, I would love to include it!