When World War II brought women to battlefield

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a specialist in 20th-century European history. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Army's elite Ranger School will graduate two female members; SEALs will open training to women

Women's treatment in services has long shown society's lag on gender equality, Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes

CNN  — 

We are living through an exciting time of acceptance for female combatants in America’s armed forces. This week’s graduates of the United States Army’s elite Ranger School will include two female members for the first time, and Navy chief operations officer Adm. Jon Greenert announced the SEALs’ famously tough training regimen will be opened to women, pending final approval.

Other military services, with the exception of the Marine Corps, have also indicated they will open most front-line combat jobs to women.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Transitional moments are not without their frustrations; as history shows, institutional change often lags behind individual achievement. Over the last years, for example, military commands have given women the chance to prove themselves under fire alongside men, but have been tentative about changing policy, placing women in contradictory situations in the interim.

The women who in 2010 were allowed to join special operations forces in the field in Afghanistan were officially banned from combat – but continually found themselves in combat situations and were trained to respond accordingly. And the two women graduates from Ranger School, who survived physically and psychologically punishing training, will not be allowed to apply for Ranger service, at least for the moment.

For a historian, this has interesting echoes.

After all, it is not the first time women in war have found themselves in such ambiguous situations, with official policy at odds with on-the-ground reality. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II offers a chance to reflect on how the actions of women in service have long revealed the outdated nature of gender restrictions that marked military institutions in the United States and beyond.

If World War I was a watershed for women in terms of participation in the labor force, World War II brought women into the battlefield in a new way. Women had combat roles in the armed forces of many countries, and, in some, the right to fire their weapons.

Russia’s female fighters included the beautiful blond sniper Roza Shanina, famous for her many confirmed kills. And women who joined European resistance movements carried arms, and used them, as did the many women in intelligence and espionage roles.

In the United States, women were forbidden to fire their weapons, but the Army Air Force utilized female pilots, including a contingent of Chinese-American women. Army ground forces also utilized women’s skills in new ways, including for training men in field artillery and in cryptography. Women served in these capacities with the Womens’ Army Auxiliary Corps, a reserves body.

Rosie the Riveter, as drawn by the artist Norman Rockwell and others, showed how the war was changing perceptions of the female. Rockwell buffed up the slender Mary Doyle Keefe, the model for his famous Rosie, who graced a 1943 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Her outsized biceps and the rivet gun on her lap convey the endurance and strength women in the factories and in the field showed during these dramatic years.

Yet such figures, and their real-life inspirations, were all too swiftly forgotten when peacetime came. Many people were uncomfortable with the idea of women as armed combatants. In Europe, female partisans were sometimes not allowed to take part in victory marches alongside their male counterparts. Instead, women who had been accused of sleeping with or assisting the Nazi-Fascist enemy were paraded through the streets, their heads shaved and clothing ripped. As the Cold War era set in, the female combatant was increasingly explained away as an exception in a time of crisis.

Instead, another female image became prominent in the United States and Europe: the housewife. After 1945, governments encouraged the millions of women who had worked and served in the military to return to the home, giving their jobs away to men now back from the war. And many women, who had endured horrific experiences during the war, in fact wanted the normality of family life after so much upheaval.

Yet the war changed women, and military life, forever. Service on such a mass scale, on the home and other fronts, could not be ignored. Women gained the right to vote in some European countries, and the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed American women to become full and permanent members of the United States Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps.

This last branch, then as now, hesitated, ruling no more than 2% of total enlisted personnel could be women.

The history of United States military involvements offers a parallel history of female mobilizations that await a fuller accounting and audience. Among these, the performance of women in World War II stands out, including for the time gap between service and institutional recognition.

Incredibly, the women who performed heroically during that conflict received Congressional Gold Medals only in 2010 – meaning some got their honors posthumously. Among them were former members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots, charged with flying noncombat missions. Talk about an ambiguous status: Although the U.S. Army directed their mission, and almost 40 female pilots died during their service, their nonmilitary designation meant they had none of the privileges of military personnel. No American flags adorned their coffins, and they won acknowledgment as veterans only in 1977, after a long fight.

The current target date for the full integration of women into the United States armed forces is less than five months away. By January 1, 2016, all service branches must notify the government if they intend to keep certain positions closed to women.

Let us hope that this looming deadline will also accelerate discussions about designating female combat status based on assessments of effective operational situations, rather than classifications that don’t always hold up in the line of fire. World War II offers a large-scale lesson in this regard.

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