Frances Wills and Harriet Ida Pickens, First African-American Women to become WAVES Officers (1944)
With so many men going overseas during World War II, the government needed ways to get additional help. In the Navy their solution was to create the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1942. By creating it as an “emergency” service, the Navy was able to admit women to serve during the war years but at the end of the war the plan was that the women would be discharged.
In November 1944, two women became the first African-American female officers in the WAVES. Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills graduated from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (Women’s Reserve) at Northampton, Massachusetts.
From the fall of 1944 onward, the Navy trained roughly one black woman for every 36 white women enlisted in the WAVES; this was about 2.77 percent, below the 10 percent cap agreed upon by the armed services in 1940.
Harriet Ida Pickens’ jacket is currently on display as part of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit, WWII and NYC.
Other Branches of the Service
Similar measures had been taken in other branches of the service. Congresswoman Edith N. Rogers (Massachusetts) introduced a bill in May 1941 for an all-volunteer woman’s corps in the Army, and in May 1942, Congress approved a bill creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). This group began as an auxiliary civilian corps and did not become regular members of the military until a new bill was approved in 1943 transitioning the unit to WAC (Women’s Army Corps). Only then did the WAC members gain the military status already given to the WAVES. (The Coast Guard created SPARs. and the air force developed WASPS–Women Air Force Service Pilots–who were permitted to fly support missions only but were critical to the war effort.)
New Status for Women
On June 12, 1948 Public Law 625 (the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act) was passed, and at that time women gained permanent status in the armed services. On July 7, 1948, Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson, and Ruth Flora became the first six enlisted women to be sworn into the regular U.S. Navy. That fall eight women were commissioned as officers.