After World War II, approximately 86,000 women served in the U.S. Navy as nurses or in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) under the provisions of the Naval Reserve Act of 1938. Congress amended the Act on 30 July 1942, which established the Women’s Reserve Program. In 1947, the Army-Navy Nurses Act established the Nurse Corps as permanent staff corps of the Navy and Army, granting nurses permanent commissioned rank.
President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law on 12 June 1948. The law granted women the right to serve as permanent members of the armed services. The number of women who could serve was capped at two percent of all personnel and prohibited their full participation in combat units and combat aircraft. Despite its limitations, this act established the right for women to serve their country in perpetuity.
For the first time after the passage of this act, women were permitted to serve alongside men in the armed forces. Despite the magnitude of this decision, recruitment was initially slow. In June 1950, only 3,200 women were on active duty. The outbreak of war in Korea sparked an increase in recruitment efforts.
Captain Joy Bright Hancock, the director of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), was instrumental in the passage of this act. Hancock leveraged her decades of experience in the Navy to advocate for women’s permanency.
The first six enlisted women were sworn into the regular Navy on 7 July 1948. These women included: Chief Yeoman Wilma J. Marchal; Yeoman Second Class Edna E. Young; Hospital Corpsman First Class Ruth Flora; Aviation Storekeeper First Class Kay L. Langen; Storekeeper Second Class Frances T. Devaney; and Teleman Doris R. Robertson.
On 15 October 1948, Captain Hancock and seven other women were sworn in as officers: Lieutenant Commanders Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, and Frances Willoughby; Lieutenants Ellen Ford and Doris Cranmore; and Lieutenants (junior grade) Doris Defenderfer and Betty Rae Tennant.
These eight women represented the first of 288 women selected for commissions in the regular Navy. Others included:
Lt. Maria E. Aquino
Capt. Frances E. Biadasz
Related NHHC Resources
Women in the Navy, a digital exhibit from the National Museum of the U.S. Navy
A Look Back at the First Women in the Medical Service Corps, an essay by André Sobocinski, historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (DVIDS)
Finding a Permanent Place: Demobilization, Suburbia, Motherhood, and Women in the Navy, an essay by Dr. Heather Haley
Flygirls, Women Mechs, and Lady Pilots: The Multi-Generational, Multi-Service Effort to End Combat Exclusion in Aviation, an essay by Dr. Heather Haley
Progressing Toward Equity and Inclusion: The 75th Anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, by Dr. Regina T. Akers.
Women in the U.S. Navy, a compilation of links to materials relating to women serving in the U.S. Navy.
“Women Must Be Given Permanent Status:” Gender Integration in the U.S. Navy, by Tricia Menke, curator of education at the National Museum of the American Sailor