By Sandi Gohn
The face of the U.S. military is changing. Today, more ethnically and racially diverse people - and notably more women - are taking the oath of enlistment.
Currently, women make up 16% of the country’s all-volunteer force – a drastic change from when the USO began serving military members and their families in 1941 during World War II. Although women have served in every U.S. conflict, WWII was the first time so many American mothers, wives and daughters – over 350,000 of them – donned a military uniform.
For much of 1940s society, seeing female faces working outside the home was a major shift from gender norms they had lived with before the war. In the early 40s, women were expected to be wives, mothers and homemakers who embodied the epitome of femininity. Despite being in favor of the war effort, many Americans felt that adding a military uniform to a woman’s wardrobe, even if it did include a skirt, was an unwelcome change.
Still, in the face of criticism from their communities and even their male military counterparts, patriotic women stepped up to serve in every branch of the military during World War II, and the USO was there to serve them from the very beginning – and continues to serve them today.
WWII America Adjusts to More Women in Uniform – Along with the Early USO
When six service organizations came together to establish the USO on Feb. 4, 1941, a dozen women, many from these founding organizations, were named to the USO’s Board of Governors.
Most notably, Mary Shotwell Ingraham of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) served as a Vice President of the USO and was integral to the USO’s inception. Ingraham would later go on to become the first woman to receive the Medal for Merit in 1946 for her USO work.
In the early days of the USO, YWCA representatives like Ingraham pushed for USO programs tailored to the needs of female service members and war workers (as some USO facilities during WWII were open to federal war workers), never forgetting the importance of serving women. There was also an internal USO Committee on Work with Women and Girls, which focused its efforts on meeting the social and recreational needs specific to female service members, war workers and military spouses.
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It didn’t take long for female-focused programming and services to appear at USO locations. In 1941, newspaper stories talked about the YWCA’s role in the newly-founded USO, remarking that the woman-focused organization would be responsible for shaping USO services for “the wives and families of enlisted men, for women and girls working on the camp grounds, or in camp areas, for girls in munition industries.”
A 1942 historical document also notes that these early programs “included recreation; education in health, nutrition, first aid, and other essential subjects, counsel on personal problems, and spiritual guidance.”
Despite the government’s efforts to publicly emphasize the profound impact that war-working and military women were having on the nation’s fight in the war, some Americans remained skeptical of females who enlisted in the military or took on jobs once held by men. Sometimes, local negative attitudes about female service members or war workers meant that uniformed women were unwelcome or treated poorly at some USOs:
According to a 2000 article by Gretchen Knapp in the Journal of Policy History,
“Concern over possible fraternization between servicemen and servicewomen probably underlay the reluctance to admit WAVES, WAACs [or WACs], [female] Marines, and SPARs [at some USO centers], although official USO policy did not prohibit them. Other [USO] operations set aside a portion of the facility for the exclusive use of servicewomen [sic].”
In many ways, society was much kinder toward women who worked as USO employees or volunteered at USO centers as hostesses or junior hostesses, as they “better adhered” to traditional gender roles at the time.
USO Expands Support for Female Service Members
1942 was a pivotal year for female service members, as that July Congress passed legislation allowing women to enlist as active duty service members in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. The Marines would permit women to enlist in February 1943.
USO documents from 1944 showcase the organization’s commitment to this growing number of women in uniform, plainly stating that “servicewomen, like servicemen, [sic] have made tremendous adjustments in their personal lives to make themselves a part of an emergency war interlude. Their moral [sic] is very much the concern and responsibility of the USO.”
This growing number of female service members inspired physical changes to several USO facilities to better meet the needs of the uniformed women.
In Arizona, Seattle, Los Angeles and Hawaii, this meant building a special room or space exclusively for women to enjoy.
These areas were typically decorated with feminine wallpaper, had women’s magazines, a powder bar and offered a quiet place to do laundry, indulge in personal care, write letters or simply enjoy a few moments away from the boys.
“Just one glimpse of flowered wallpaper is enough to make me feel at home,” said one WAC, according to a USO report in the late 1940s.
USO staff across the country also developed special programming for women and, as noted in historical USO documents, were urged to personally invite female service members and even involve them in the planning process to encourage participation.
USO Women’s Service Clubs
In other parts of the country, entire separate USO locations were created specifically to help female service members feel at home.
Des Moines, Iowa
Two USO Service Women’s Clubs were opened in Des Moines, Iowa, to serve the thousands of female soldiers who were training at nearby Camp Des Moines (although men were allowed to use these USO facilities, too).
One of these USOs was designated for white women, the other for Black women. Although the USO’s agreement with the federal government explicitly declared that USO locations be open to all men and women in uniform regardless of race, in practice, universally enforcing this policy during WWII proved difficult at times due to local attitudes toward race.
Over in Detroit, there was a USO Service Women’s Club, too. In 1942, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even wrote about this USO center:
“They tell me, with a great deal of pride, that this USO center will have everything which the men’s USO center has, plus a few feminine touches, such as a laundry, attractive curtains and bedspread in the rooms … I look forward to having an opportunity to see this club the first time I am able to go to Detroit.”
Hawaii also boasted several woman-focused USO locations, including the USO Service Women’s Lounge, located in the Honolulu YWCA building, and a club simply called “Hui Welina,” which was located at the late Hawaiian Princess Kawananakoa’s home.
Interestingly, these Hawaiian lounges were staffed collectively by USO employees and volunteers from 15 area sororities.
“It’s [sic] is a busy spot, with girls in and out all day long using the checking service, gathering information, just loafing on one of the comfortable couches, taking showers, or having fun … with the lavish display of … cosmetics,” wrote Lois LeBosquet Gray of the USO Service Women’s Lounge in a 1945 issue of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority magazine.
“Hui Welina embodies the true Hawaiian spirit of hospitality and … is a great joy to the girls because it is so completely different from their quarters on their stations.”
Several other places across the country — including Miami, Baltimore and Oakland, Calif. — also had USO Service Women’s centers, particularly as the war waned on. It’s safe to say that by the end of WWII, there were dozens, if not a few hundred, USO rooms or entire centers open specifically to serve female service members who were serving the nation.
Post-WWII and the Continuing Focus on Serving All Who Serve at the USO
Although many female service members turned in their uniforms and headed back home at the end of WWII in 1945, the USO, along with society, remained forever changed. Women were now a crucial part of the nation’s Armed Forces, which meant that they were also a core part of the military community that the USO supports.
In the decades since VE Day, VJ Day and the end of WWII, women have fought for the right to serve while pregnant, hold pilot roles, lead majority-male units, fight in combat and much, much more. Today, women serve in more roles – and in more prestigious roles – than ever before, and the USO is there at every step of their service journey.
From being there as a place to rest at the airport before they fly to basic training; to handing them a USO Care Package filled with female-specific items when they deploy overseas; to hosting a “Ladies Night” event at their local USO downrange; to inviting them to a USO Special Delivery baby shower; to offering them a way to connect with their kids back home through the Bob Hope Legacy Reading program; to helping them discover their next step as they leave the military with the USO Pathfinder® Transition Program, the USO remains committed to serving all the men – and women – of our Armed Forces.
-This story was originally published on USO.org in 2021. It has been updated in 2022.
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