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Expanding "Rosie the Riveter" to Encompass The Occupation of Women Throughout Wars With United States Involvement

Song-"Rosie the Riveter" by The Four Vanguards


The symbolic images of “Rosie the Riveter” are often the first images to come to mind when one reviews the roles of women during armed conflict. However, one cannot forget women like Betsy Ross or Molly Pitcher, the women who supposedly took her husbands place at an artillery post. The roles of women have changed dramatically throughout the history of the United States. Until World War Two, women rarely saw combat and merely took jobs necessary in order to maintain their domestic spere. World war two saw the explosion of “Rosie the Riveter”, where women were recruited out of the house in order to serve the armed forces. Modern military engagements now include women in numerous roles, with limited restrictions on women in the armed forces. The role of women during times of war has grown greatly from the nurses of the 19th century, through the time of service on the homefront, and into new roles in the modern era.

Early service by women in American history is best displayed by the civil war. Well documented, contemporary technology allowed for the storage of records that was impossible in 1776 or 1812. Still, the old world roles of women in the war were clear. The greatest service women provided was as nurses. Neither side was prepared for the bloodshed that the Civil War would bring. In June 1861, as response to the massive causalties, Dorothea Dix (Pictured Below) was appointed to


Superintendant of the Army Nurses. She was given the task of creating a trained nursing unit, and she met this task with a strict selection process. Women were not to be a distraction to soldiers, and were to be prepared to handle at least forty sick or injured soldiers during 12 hour shifts. None the less women joined the service, and the group of nurses grew dramatically. Those who were denied by Dix found ways to be nurses on their own. Clara Barton was one such women, who distributed supplies to soldiers from Massachusettes regiments throughout the war. She later went on to become the founder of the American Red Cross despite the fact she could not enter an Army hospital. Nurses are the classical role of women in war, and even to this day continues to exist. (Carnegie Mellon)

A surprising role of women in old world wars was the act of spying. Their dedication to “The Cause” was met by a ban on women taking up arms, and women were forced into service by other means. A famous women spy was Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who used her friends in Washinton to learn the plans of the First Battle of Bull Run, and pass them back across the line to the Confederacy. Women who served as spies met extreme dangers. Both sides exploited the opportunity to use women as spies, and understood that the other side would as well. Women were searched at the outskirts of bases and formations, and whenever they crossed the lines. None the less, eccentric hair and hoop dresses made spying rather simple for women in the civil war. Information and contraband was sewn into the dresses and maps would be rolled into the hair and carried across the line. If captured, women would be imprisoned, their reputation would be ruined, and their future would be lost. The risk of spying was great, but women still stepped forward to take the role. (Carnegie Mellon)



As World War Two began, the roles of women in war dramatically changed. Massive armies were mobilized by all nations, and the United States was the same. With able bodied men being sent into combat, women were forced to replace them on the homefront. This replacement is the legacy of “Rosie the Riveter.” Manufacturing was a labor intensive field which generally employed only men, but with the mass deployments of WWII, women were forced to take these roles. Unable to perform combat duty, they replaced men who were needed in the front lines.(Lewis-Women and World War II) During WWII the percentage of American women working for pay jumped from 25% to 36%, many of them being married women, mothers, or minorities. The key to this change was propaganda like “Rosie”, which showed women as patriotic rather than unfeminine for working in non-traditional jobs. Even shipbuilding, a part of the workforce excluded from women, jumped to 9% during the war. Office jobs with the government also were taken by women, especially at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, where new government facilities opened for the development of nuclear weapons. On the homefront, women began to grow into new roles, and the lack of male workers provided a catalyst for the breakdown of gender barriers on employment previously common in the nation. (Lewis-Women at Work)


World War II also provided a first step for women into front lines duty. While women could not serve in the front lines and still cannot today, famous women piolts like those of the Women Airforce Service Pilots(WASP). WASP piolts were women trained to fly non-combat missions in order to free male piolts for combat. They served to ferry planes from manufaturing plants to military bases and even across the ocean if necessary. Early American piolts like Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, Bessie Coleman, and Harriet Quimby had already made a mark for women aviators, and women piolts in WASP showed that women were equally as skilled as men. None the less the WASP was never militarized, and would always be considered a branch of the civil service. (Lewis- Women Pilots of World War II)


The roles of women have evolved greatly from early roles as spies. Since 2002, 170,000 tours of duty have been served by women in Iraq and Afghanistan. While women are still banned from ground combat units like infantry, armor, and artillery; roles as support units and even fighter piolts are taken by women today. The gurellia tactics of this war have brought the nation one step closer to allowing women into active combat, as IED's and other devices make the support lines as dangerous as active combat. None the less, both sides of this issue will continue to be argued throughout the near future. (Norris)

Women have always served a vital role. Always recognized as nurses, the civil war also so an increase in female spies. The mass mobilzation of forces in WWI and WWII lead to women as manufactures for the nation, and even saw women begin transporting supplies to the front lines. Today women are unable to serve in combat duty, but as war continues in the middle east, the division will become less and less clear. Perhaps “Rosie the Riveter” should be remembered for her other counterparts; “Nancy the Nurse”, “Sally the Spy”, “Pauline the Pilot”, and “Heather the Humvee Driver.”


Works Cited

Carnegie Mellon. “Women's Roles in the Civil War”. Carnegie Mellon. May 26, 2009.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Women and World War II”. May 26, 2009.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Women and World War II-Women at Work”. May 26, 2009.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “WASP- Women Pilots of World War II”. May 26, 2009.

Norris, Michele. “Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand”. NPR. October 1, 2007. May 26, 2009.

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