The Heritage of Women in the Navy

image of WAVES poster
US Navy recruitment poster, for the 'Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service' (WAVES) program, features two uniformed women in dress whites as they walk together, in fron of a city skyline, accompanied by the text 'Don't Miss Your Great Opportunity; the Navy Needs You in the WAVES,' early to mid 1940z. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Patricia Klimkewicz, PhD, RN-BC, nurse faculty mentor for the Veteran’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program (VBSN)

By As Veteran’s Day is approaching and a veteran myself, I am reflecting on the heritage of women in the United States Navy.  On October 13, 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the United States Navy.  At this time only men were allowed to serve. It wasn’t until 1908, 133 years later with the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps, did women serve.  Twenty women had been selected and assigned to the Naval Medical School Hospital in Washington, DC.  They were known as “The Sacred Twenty.”  At the start of World War I, the Navy Nurse Corps expanded to 160 and continues to grow.

image of WAVES poster
US Navy recruitment poster, for the ‘Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service’ (WAVES) program.

During World War II, the Women’s Reserve of the United States Naval Reserve was established in July 1942 with Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee becoming the first Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the director of the Women’s Reserve.  All WAVES were reservists and did not have authority over men, only other women.  In order for a women to enlist, she had to be at least 20 years of age and not over 36.  If unmarried when she joined, she had to agree not to get married prior to completion of indoctrination and training missions and no women was allowed to become pregnant.  If she became pregnant, she was discharged.

At the end of World War II, nearly 100,000 women served and were allowed to stay on active duty.  Women in the Navy, both active duty and reserves were provided permanent status as a result of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act of 1948.

Throughout the years, Navy women faced many barriers toward equality such as, equal pay, discharged for pregnancy, not allowing to attend the Naval Academy, or serving on ships.  We have overcome these barriers and continue to serve our country alongside our shipmates, male or female.

On this Veterans Day, take a moment to thank a veteran for their service, especially those women who have served and are part of Navy history.


Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive / Getty Images / Universal Images Group