With Armed Forces Day in mind, here’s one element of how women became part of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to create the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC).
Credit Rogers as a true agent of change for women in the military. And why not? Rogers was a woman who volunteered for the Red Cross, worked in military hospitals, and inspected field hospitals overseas during World War I. She became the first Congresswoman from her state in 1925, when she ran for and won the seat held by her late husband, John J. Rogers, who had passed away earlier that year.
On May 15, 1942, the bill was signed into law, giving the WAAC official military status and salary as noncombatants. Benefits on par with Army men would have to wait until July. Additional legislation was passed, “Auxiliary” disappeared from the title, and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was born.
Edith Nourse Rogers spent more than 35 years in the House of Representatives, second in duration only to Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who is now into her 38th year. Current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in her 34th year, is closing in on Rogers’ mark. Rogers died in 1960.
“The first 30 years are the hardest,” Rogers quipped about her tenure in Congress. “It’s like taking care of the sick. You start it and you like the work, and you just keep on.” — U.S. House of Representatives Archives
Throughout World War II, more than 140,000 WACs served, with 99,400 still on active duty when the fighting in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. Some served near the front lines in both Europe and in the Philippines, and by the time the war ended in September 1945, roughly one-third had served overseas.
In 1948, President Truman signed legislation giving the WAC permanent status in the Army. Congress lifted promotion restrictions, enabling the first WACs to become generals. In 1978, the WAC was integrated into the regular Army. In 1980, those who had served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II received veterans status.
Rogers also helped write and co-sponsor the GI Bill in 1944, and led the expansion of the Bill in 1952 to include Korean War veterans. Her legacy lives on — the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 includes the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship, giving additional benefits to veterans studying science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.