How This Steel Magnolia From Texas Fought for Women in the Military
This woman stepped up to the plate to help guarantee benefits and opportunities for female veterans.
Women have been serving in the military since the American Revolution, usually in unofficial capacities. In the early days of our country, some women followed their husbands and served in the military camps as cooks and nurses. Others, such as Deborah Sampson, took their call of duty and quest for adventure one step further and, disguised as men, served as soldiers and spies. During World War I women were allowed to join the military as nurses and support staff, but after the war, most of these females were quickly demobilized and sent home. Aside from the Nurse Corps, the military once again became exclusively male. However, opportunities and benefits for women in the military began to change at the outset of World War II, due in part to the efforts of Oveta Culp Hobby of Texas, the well-read daughter of a small-town lawyer who would later become the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
In 1941, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill in Congress to establish an Army Women's Corps, separate and distinct from the existing Army Nurse Corps. Rogers was determined that women serving in a wartime theater would receive the same legal protection, pay, pension, and disability benefits as their male counterparts. The bill was met with opposition from the Army, who did not want to accept women directly into its ranks, and from some congressmen, who questioned who would be left at home to do the washing, mending, and other homey tasks that women do.
After a long and exhaustive debate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law in May, 1942. Secretary of War Henry L. Stinson immediately tapped Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby as Director of WAAC.
Hobby arrived in Washington D.C. with quite a resume. She had served for several years as the parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives, was editor of a Houston newspaper, and was married to the former Texas Governor William P. Hobby. Citing family and business responsibilities in Texas, Hobby initially refused the appointment. At the urging of her husband, who told her "… every one of us is going to have to do whatever we are called upon to do," she finally accepted the position as Director of WAAC.
Hobby threw herself into the job of integrating the WAAC (later the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC) into the military, working tirelessly to strengthen its foundation and protect its image. The idea of women in the military was polarizing for many Americans; some men saw women in the service as a threat to their masculinity, or thought if women held the “safe” jobs in the service, then men would more likely be sent into combat. Moreover, not all women were in favor of other females serving alongside their husbands or boyfriends. Hobby used her calm sensibilities to win over the press and quell baseless rumors concerning women in the military. On another front, Hobby had to fight the beaurocracy and some members of the Army for the respect and resources due the WAC. She had to fight for proper housing barracks to be built, design an appealing uniform for approval, and Hobby, who had been given the rank of Colonel, had to call for a car from the motor pool. She worked tirelessly to raise admission standards and created a Code of Conduct specific to the WAC in order to create a tightly regulated, high quality organization that portrayed women's corps in a positive light. By 1944, WACs were requested by military commanders around the world. In January 1945, Hobby became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal for outstanding service, and in July 1945, she grudgingly resigned from her post due to exhaustion. By the end of WWII, about 100,000 women had joined the WAC.
During this same time period, other branches of the U.S. military had similar women's units: the WAVES of the Navy, the SPARS of the Coast Guard, the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, and the civil Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS.
Leaders of the military came to realize and appreciate the contributions women could make as permanent members of the armed forces. On June 12, 1948, following two years of legislative debate, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, enabling women to serve as permanent, regular members of all branches of the armed forces and entitling them to full veterans benefits.