Research Spotlight: Rosie the Riveter, Vera the Volunteer: Sexism, Racism, and Female Enlistment in WWII

When the United States entered World War II, women were mobilized in large numbers for non-combat military roles for the first time in U.S. history. Women and men alike were willing to sacrifice extensively to win the war; in December 1941, 91 percentage of Americans supported declaring war on the Axis Powers. Given the overwhelming support for the war effort, it remains puzzling why recruitment targets were consistently missed. Ultimately, the Army recruited only 133,000 volunteers for the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) out of a target of 300,000. Theoretically, women from all walks of life had the opportunity to volunteer, but substantial variation in volunteerism rates persisted across geography, class, partisanship, and other demographic indicators. This begs the question: what factors influenced women to volunteer for WWII?

To answer this question, we introduce an original dataset that contains detailed information on all volunteers who served in the United States Army during World War II. In turn, these data are drawn from a larger original dataset of all enlistees in the Army during the war. The Department of War gathered details about its enlistees in a raw, unusable format, and only released them to the public in 2002. We extensively cleaned, labeled, organized, and formatted these data for a variety of quantitative research purposes. Our dataset contains every enlistee’s date of birth, state and county of residence, enlistment date, pre-war occupation, education level, race, gender, and ancestry. Our dataset contains over nine million service member records. Our finished dataset has potential applications across subfields and disciplines, ranging from historical analysis, sociological studies, political behavior, and the study of how countries mobilize for war.

We report three major findings about female enlistment during World War II. First, counties with higher female college graduation rates experienced higher rates of female volunteerism. Substantively, the average-sized county with the maximum number of female graduates in 1942 would report 5.27 additional female volunteers than the same county with no female graduates.

Second, counties with lower levels of racial segregation experienced increased rates of volunteerism among black women. Communities with less racial segregation tended to have draft boards with fewer institutional roadblocks for women of color, influencing increased volunteerism.

Finally, increased civilian wages resulted in higher female volunteerism. Substantively, the average-sized county moving from the 25th-centile wages to the 75th-centile wages increases the number of female volunteers in that county by 27.66 (manufacturing), 3.5 (retail), and 1.00 (service). This suggests that the economic boom associated with wartime mobilization did not translate to prosperity for women.

During World War II, the enlistment process was a test on the government structures and American society regarding their racist and sexist patterns. A test which, according to the results of our paper, has failed. The judgments by the American society, the unequal education opportunities, followed by the discriminatory practices of the draft boards, led to fewer women and people of color volunteering in the military at a time when volunteering was needed the most. It is important to consider these results when doing future research in this field and assess whether such patterns are practiced today.

Alexandra Artiles is a PhD Candidate at the FSU Department of Political Science. You can learn more about Alexandra here.

Joana Treneska is a Masters candidate at the University of Salzburg. You can learn more about Joana here.

Dr. Kevin Fahey is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nottingham. You can learn more about Kevin here.

Dr. Doug Atkinson is a Postdoctoral University Assistant of Political Science at the University of Salzburg. You can learn more about Doug here.

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