Beyond Rosie the Riveter: A History of Women in the Navy

At the Puget Sound Navy Yard’s sheet metal shop, Pearl Sanchez and Mary St Sauveur solder pipe during World War II.

 

By Megan Churchwell, Museum Curator, Puget Sound Navy Museum.

When you picture women and Navy work, you probably think of ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ a term popularized during World War II. But the history of women in the Navy starts much earlier than this.

Women in the Early Navy (1775-1908)

Women have served in defense of our nation since the Revolutionary War. Back then, they served traditional roles within the Army such as nurses, seamstresses, and cooks.  Many military posts counted on these roles to makes service members’ lives tolerable.

Most women associated with the Navy in its earliest years were nurses.  In 1811 the first female nurses became personnel at Navy hospitals. In 1862, women served aboard the Navy’s first hospital ship, Red Rover, to provide medical care to Union soldiers during the Civil War.

However, women did not become an official part of the naval service until 1908, when Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps. The first 20 nurses, called the “Sacred Twenty,” broke the barriers that eventually paved the way for all women to officially enter naval service.

World War I: Arrival of the Yeomanettes (1917-1918)

Nurses remained the only women officially serving in the Navy until World War I, when the Navy’s first enlisted women, known as Yeomanettes, joined the service.

On March 19, 1917, the Navy officially authorized the enlistment of women with the Naval Reserve Act, which allowed for enlistment of qualified “persons” for service, without mention of gender. The influx of women in the service was meant to help alleviate a projected shortage of clerical workers as World War I began.

Loretta Walsh of Olyphant, Pennsylvania, was recognized as the first woman to enlist. Enlisted women became known as “yeomanettes” or Yeoman(F) to distinguish them from the male sailors. Men and women in the same rank earned equal pay, a rarity in the civilian world at the time.

At the beginning, it was assumed the yeomanettes would perform only office duties. The women also ended up working as mechanics, truck drivers, camouflage designers, cryptographers, telephone operators, translators, and munitions makers, among many other duties.

Locally, more than 200 Yeomanettes served at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, along with over 6,500 other employees – some of whom were also women, who had been hired into civil service positions.

Some of the more than 200 enlisted women, known as Yeomanettes, who worked at Bremerton’s Puget Sound Navy Yard during World War I.

 

End of War; Return to Tradition (1918-1941)

Upon the end of World War I in November, 1918, there were 11,275 yeomanettes in the Navy. Within the following two years, every woman was released from active duty. Most Americans had considered the use of female employees and female recruits to be a necessary but temporary wartime measure. Women were fulfilling their patriotic duty by releasing desk-bound men for combat, but they were expected to return to more traditional roles when the men came home.

Rivet heaters and passers at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, May 29, 1919.

 

Despite this, many women continued on at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in civilian roles. Shown here is Dina Olsen. In this 1919 image, she is making gunpowder bags from gray silk. Prior to working in the Shipyard, this Norwegian immigrant earned her wages making tents and sleeping bags for prospectors during the Yukon Gold Rush. In 1905, she started working as a sail loft worker, becoming one of the first women employed at the Shipyard.

Though women would disappear from enlisted service until the next world war, they set the precedence that gave rise to the WAVES in World War II.

World War II: Welcoming the WAVES (1941-1945)

Building on the example set by World War I, women of World War II entered the Navy and our shipyards by the hundreds, as both civilians and enlisted personnel.

With many civilian jobs vacated by men headed off to war, women performed jobs that were previously reserved only for men, working as mechanics, chemists, welders, and electricians. A woman who toiled in the defense industry came to be known as “Rosie the Riveter,” a term popularized by a 1942 hit song of the same name.

This time around, the Navy organized to recruit women into a separate women’s auxiliary, rather than in the regular Navy. On July 30, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Public Law 689, creating the Navy’s women reserve program. These women were known as Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (or WAVES, for short).

In the Puget Sound Navy Yard’s sail loft, women sew leather welding hoods during World War II.

The large-scale enlistment of women into the Navy was intended again, as it had been during World War I, to alleviate anticipated clerical shortages. Like the enlistment of Yeomanettes, this military participation was seen as a necessary but temporary wartime measure. By 1945, women made up 18 percent of all naval personnel on shore duty. These women served many roles, from administrative and medical ratings to rigging parachutes, repairing aviation instruments, and much more.

Approximately 250 WAVES, including 30 officers, were stationed in Bremerton during World War II – just some of the more than 86,000 WAVES on duty nationwide. In the civil service, by 1944, women made up more than a quarter of the workforce at Bremerton’s Puget Sound Navy Yard. There were over 4,200 women working here.

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