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Essay: To what extent did the WASP Program impact women’s rights during and after World War II?

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In World War II, American women had to fight twice as hard for their right to fight alongside men to protect their countries. Through nursing opportunities, sniper training projects, and the invention of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, women had to overcome the boundaries of their domestic duties on the home front and enter the male-dominated throes of war. The impact they left on the war community and the quest for women’s rights forever changed the way women are viewed in American society. The WASP Program impacted women’s rights to a great extent during and after World War II through efforts in the military, field of aviation, and politically through their battle for militarization.

Background Information

It took the ambitions of two very different women and the formation and contributions of several organizations before the inception of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots program. Jaqueline “Jackie” Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, both pioneers in aviation, were the driving forces behind the formation of the WASP program. The program was an amalgamation of their two separate units: the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. Although pursuing different approaches, both women had the same end result in mind: a successful women’s division of the United States Air Force to assist in World War II.

At the dawn of the war, both Cochran and Love immediately recognized the necessity of female pilots. They individually sought out support for the idea. Cochran, who’s husband was a long time financial supporter of President Roosevelt’s wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt put her in contact with Commanding General H. H. Arnold of the Army Air Forces. Around the same time, Love wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds who was setting up a Ferrying Command within the Army Air Forces. General H. H. Arnold refuted both proposals saying, “The most serious challenge facing the Army Air Forces is a lack of planes not a lack of aviators.”

The British were the first to institute a women’s division of their Air Force. In July of 1941, two whole years into World War II, the British were in desperate need of trained aviators. The Royal Air Force found refuge in experienced female pilots who were enlisted to ferry planes around the British Isles. Not only did they move the crafts with streamlined efficiency, their rate of accident was far below the male average. Jacqueline Cochran studied this assembly extensively, intending to simulate similar procedures in the United States Air Force. In many ways, the Auxiliary inspired the WASP program. Individually, both Cochran and Love submitted a second round of proposals regarding a female flying squadron with the new intelligence obtained form the Auxiliary. Love’s proposal, often regarded as more modest than Cochran’s, was approved within months. While Love set out to begin recruiting experienced female aviators, President Roosevelt instructed Cochran to establish a training program according to military procedures. Love named her division the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Consisting of 25 experienced aviators, the WAFS maintained a successful record and kept equal with male statistics of the time. These women were ferrying virtually every model of military plane across the country. “One important factor was that the WAFS program was never a matter of ego. It was absolutely critical to Love that both men and women believed that members of either sex had something to contribute…

Love’s plan for the WAFS, both in conception and execution, remains an important model for the integration of women into the military.” While the WAFS program was successfully executing cross-country ferrying missions, Cochran was busy training female aviators in her program, Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). Over the course of its operation, more than 25,000 women applied to the training program, of whom only 1,879 were accepted. In the summer of 1943, after several years in the making, the lesser known WAFS and WFTD programs were merged, forming the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Cochran and Love retained their crucial leadership roles: Cochran assumed the position of Director, while Love continued to head ferrying operations.

Military Advancements

The brave, young women of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots forever impacted women’s rights and the stance of females in the military. During and prior to World War II, women held a very minute position in the military, often assisting the war effort from the comfort and safety of the home front. However, this was not at the desire of these women, but of the social and political norms that restricted their roles and capabilities. “Women were expected to help soldiers in the war effort but not become soldiers, which resulted in women being encouraged to participate in the war effort only within functions that did not break the status quo expectations of gender roles.” Very few women employed duties generally associated with men. Of these few, truck drivers and mechanics were most common, but were still no where near the level of importance of the WASPs. The majority of women served as clerical workers or secretaries, falling into society’s definition of a proper woman’s job. The WASPs challenged this cultural model and ventured into the male-dominated operations of the military.

Despite the severe backlash from the media, society, and the men whose positions were in question, the United States’ military in World War II was in desperate need of assistance. All branches of the military ran various recruitment campaigns for women. “However, the participation of women in the military, though encouraged during times of war, does challenge cultural expectations of gender roles.” The WASP program was formed in an attempt to relieve male pilots so they could be available for combat. Since its formation, gender was the defining point of the program. Unlike other branches of the military, and even other aspects of the war effort, WASPs were filling highly regarded positions that were sought after by men. “Although women have been active participants in all wars in which the United States has been involved, and although all branches of the U.S. military had women’s auxiliaries in World War II, the WASP program remained unique because all of the women who served were pilots; thus they all served in positioned desired and admired by men.” As accomplished and dedicated young women in the highest ranks of the military, WASPs were rewarded with flying the latest and greatest planes and machinery. Included in their ferries were Boeing XB-29 “Superfortresses”, Boeing B-52 “Stratofortresses”, and Boeing P-26 “Helldivers”. The

Superfortresses were some of the first prototypes to be tested, with the “X” in the name indicating an aircraft in its experimental phase. The fact that the WASPs were of the first people to pilot such a large long-range bomber in its preliminary stages was a major step forward for women in the military. In addition to the XB-29’s, WASPs were tasked with flying a controversial aircraft: the Boeing B-26. Nicknamed the “Widowmaker” by male pilots, the B-26 was known for killing more pilots in training flights than men in combat. Jackie Cochran saw an opportunity and encouraged her girls to fly them. “In ground school, the women outscored the men on everything—the mechanical system, the electrical system, the hydraulic system, and the emergency system. When the male students found out about this, they were flabbergasted.” Kathleen Cornelsen put it best saying, “The women’s success with these intimidating aircraft marked a pivotal step towards breaking the existing gender barrier and enabled them to explore new directions in aviation.” The WASPs’ mastery of such a dangerous and unexplored machine set them above the male pilots, and displayed to the military and the whole world just how determined the women were to be equal to their male counterparts. However, holding such important positions came at a price for the pioneering women. The WASPs faced discrimination at all levels of the military and even within their own operations. Most notable was the discrimination between male and female pilots, exclusively because of their differences in gender. From fundamental equipment such as uniforms and room and board to general pay and insurance, WASPs were fighting an entirely different battle than the war at hand: discrimination. As for pay, female pilots were looking at a maximum of 75 dollars a month whereas men received a minimum of 150 dollars a month in addition to overtime compensation. Out of their minuscule wage, WASPs were expected to finance their own transportation, food, room and board, clothing, among other essentials that were provided at no cost to male pilots.There were also drastic differences in the requirements and qualifications necessary for women to apply to the training program in the first place than their male counterparts. Females were required to have 75 hours of flight time experience paired with a pilot’s license and a high school diploma whereas men were not expected to have any flight experience nor a pilot’s license and only needed three years of a high school education. These excessive prerequisites often deterred many capable young women from applying to the program. Still, Jackie Cochran was as determined as ever to make a name for the WASPs. At the time of the program’s inception, women represented a minuscule percentage of military personnel. In today’s day and age, women make up a whopping 28.8% of the Air Force with an amazing 705 female pilots, 295 navigators, and 225 air battle managers. Furthermore, 20.7% of officers are women, a rank which a woman could have never dreamed of achieving during World War II. All of these statistics clearly show the significant impact the women of the WASP program and in all forces left on the military for generations to come. “Women in particular were participating in specific military units as well as in war factories and other domestic support positions that not only challenged existing assumptions about the abilities and limitations of women as a cultural group, but also provided women with greater mobility, freedom, education, and income than they had previously enjoyed.”

In addition to the discrimination and societal backlash aimed at the program, the WASPs faced further prejudice in Congress. “The WASP program’s development was unlike that of any other women’s auxiliary, but all women’s detachments of the U.S. military faced opposition to their existence and continuance from the military, Congress, and the public, an opposition arose solely from the gender of those who comprised these auxiliaries.” Their battle for militarization and quest for veteran status became the main goal for the program and part of their long-lasting legacy. “The most egregious example of discrimination WASP encountered was the failure of the military to bestow veteran status on their members. During the program’s two-year duration, the brave women who served as WASPs were considered paid volunteers. “They are civil employees but they are in the Army Air Forces and they are, despite some rough going, little by little being considered as of the Army Air Forces.” Despite performing many of the same tasks, the women’s title of “civil employee” is harshly juxtaposed to their male counterparts, who were granted military status and thus reaped the ensuing benefits. On July 1, 1943, the Women Army Auxiliary Corps became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and by an act of Congress, was granted full military status. There was much controversy over whether or not the WASP program would join the WAC to obtain its militarization. However, “Jackie Cochran believed that such an organizational shift would entangle her pilots in Army bureaucracies, and hinder her plans to broaden their duties.” Without being confined by the WAC, Cochran and her WASPs continued the fight for military status. Despite continued efforts and repeated appeals to Congress long after their disbandment, the WASP program was not militarized until 1977. “President Carter signed the bill into law on November 23, 1977, one day before Thanksgiving, officially declaring the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots as having served on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for the purposes of laws administered by the veterans of the Army Air Forces.” Almost forty years after World War II, the WASPs’ other battle had come to a victorious end.

Advancements in Aviation

The audacious women of the WASP program significantly impacted the world of aviation, as well as the lives of women on the home front. Through their bold commitment to prove their equality to men, both in the skies and on the ground, the WASPs redefined the societal and cultural notions of what it means to be a woman. “Their performance in their nontraditional roles proved that women were capable of serving their country in any capacity.” Aviation in particular, prior to World War II, was a predominately male-associated field. The valiant women of the WASP program not only proved to the public that piloting was not a man’s profession, but also inspired many young women that they too could fly the skies. Many of the most notorious female pilots of all time attribute their successes to the brave women of the WASP program. In 1976, ten women were hired to become the first female commercial airline pilots. Terry London Rinehart, one of these pioneering women, credits the WASP program with inspiring her to pursue piloting. “[Rinehart] believed the accomplishments of the WASP gave her generation the self-confidence and support needed to succeed in areas not ordinarily considered typical for women.” Kelly Hamilton, another acclaimed pilot, flew in Operation Desert Storm following the Cold War. Considered one of the most dangerous Air Force operations, Hamilton’s participation in Desert Storm was momentous for female aviators. “[Hamilton] credited the WASP’s willingness to explore new venues and break old barriers for her resolve to pursue a career in military aviation.” Furthermore, the first co-ed class to complete Air Force Pilot training graduated in 1977. Of these graduates stood Colonel Kimberly Olson. Olson credits the WASP program with the opportunity for her to serve alongside men. “[Olson felt the WASP record gave women pilots ‘the historical data they needed to prove that women could fly and be successful.” The brave WASPs pioneered in their field and reinvented what it means to be a female pilot. “With their bravery, their ability, and their willingness to defy conventional labels, the WASP inspired the women aviators that followed and laid the groundwork for later generations of women.” Additionally, many WASPs, following the disbandment of the program, didn’t return to life on the home front. Instead, they opted to continue working in fields of aeronautics and aviation, applying their new knowledge and skills from the WASP program while continuing to inspire everyone they encountered. Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, a former WASP, developed a passion for the stars and shifted her training from aviation to aeronautics. She was accepted into the astronaut training program in its early stages at the young age of 28, by which she had already set various records in several categories ranging from speed to altitude. Her most notable accomplishment was being awarded the esteemed Gold Wings of Achievement. Cobb has publicly accredited her aeronautical successes to her earlier accomplishments in the WASP program. These accounts are just a few of the many lives the WASPs touched as they opened the door for women to thrive in aviation.

Political Advancements

In addition to their quest for militarization, WASPs faced continued political backlash through the formation of the Ramspeck Civil Service Investigating Committee. The committee was formed after the male civilian pilots’ lobby consulted Representative Robert Ramspeck, chairman of the Committee on Civil Service. The thirteen-page report issued by the committee, commonly known as the Ramspeck Report addressed these five claims made by the male pilots’ group:

  • Army Air Forces had embarked upon a costly and unnecessary program of recruiting inexperienced young women for training as noncombat service pilots.
  • Simultaneously, Army Air Forces was dismissing, or failing to properly utilize, large numbers of male civilian pilot-instructors, who had been trained at a cost of millions of dollars.
  • While insisting upon high qualifications as prerequisite to the retention of these male civilian pilot-instructors, Army Air Forces was lowering the standards for female civilian recruits to an almost irreducible minimum.
  • The program was highly experimental.
  • The alleged manpower shortage given as a reason for the recruiting and training of inexperienced personnel was not, as claimed, being alleviated, but instead was being further confused and aggravated.

The report further states, “This is not a question of the utilization of male or female personnel, but is a question of the utilization of experience and capabilities before resorting to the use of inexperience and costly training.” This explicitly claims that the report was impartial to gender, yet it raises several points of contention specifically attributed to gender. The report’s central allegation is that the women did not have the capabilities to be pilots because they were coming from work on the home front that was directly associated with women. WASPs accurately identified a clear flaw in this theology, as one of the foremost requirements to be accepted into WASP training was a minimum of 75 hours of flight time as well as a pilots license. However, Jackie Cochran tells that all those accepted into the program had far beyond 75 hours: “You are all experienced pilots. There isn’t a girl in this room who has less than two hundred and fifty hours, and most of you have much more.” While the women had to fill these tall requirements to even be accepted into the preliminary stages of the program, with no guarantee of even becoming a WASP, male pilots were not required to have any previous flight experience or a pilot’s license. These men were coming to the Air Forces from traditionally ordinary jobs on the home front, just as the report was alleging of the women. “The Ramspeck Report published many purported findings about the WASP program, which had considerable influence not only over how Congress voted on the WASP bill but also on the anti-WASP media campaign.” Although the Ramspeck Report delayed the militarization of the WASP program for several decades, the determined women still prevailed and the bill passed in Congress in 1977, granting them full military status.


The WASP program faced opposition from several parties and persons, primarily because of the idea that women were inferior, weak, and unable to serve on the front lines of war. During World War II, women were expected to contribute to the war effort back home, filling men’s jobs in the workplace, and keeping the home front warm for when husbands returned from war. Very few supported the idea of women serving in the Airforce or any branch of the military. “More attention was focused on women’s roles in the home front than on their participation in the battle front, and the stories of women soldiers were mediated to fit existing and acceptable notions of gender, despite the efforts and dangers that constituted their lives.” Because of this predisposed notion that women are inferior to men and belong in certain sectors of society, especially during war times, there is a constant dispute over whether or not war provides a platform for women to progress their stance in society or deteriorates advances in gender equality. This is known as the progress-regress debate, “in which some claim that war liberates women and others claim that war does not disrupt the long-term continuities in women’s lives, or even that war acts as a setback to women’s progress.” Women’s regress, especially during times of war, ties back to the idea of societal hegemony. “Hegemony is a relation of domination not through force, but through consent that occurs by means of political and ideological control.” In other words, as the status and power of women during wartime begins to shift, attempts are made to conserve the previously standing norm of dominant male power structure. Women are oppressed and confined to a certain idea of how they should perform and limits to what extent they can contribute to the war effort. The WASP program effectively served to combat this hegemonic control over women and redefine the woman’s place in wartime culture.

It is no secret that the WASP program was generally unfavored in the public eye. Specifically in the media, WASPs were objectified and dismissed because of the fact that they were women. “The female soldier is constructed as wither being excessively sexual or excessively nonsexual, for which she is tagged as either ‘whore’ or ‘lesbian’. This sexualized naming maintains the repetition of gendered performance within the military by explaining the peacetime participation of women as an unnatural phenomenon.” In other words, the women who did not stay on the home fronts and wait for their husbands to return from war were either looking to be men or sleep with them. This sexist and over-sexualized representation of women in the military can also be seen in many interviews and articles pertaining to WASPs. “These articles almost always focused on the physical attributes of pilots and were usually accompanied by numerous pictures of the pilots, none of which ever showed them actually piloting a plane.” These common articles paired with the release of the Ramspeck report greatly deteriorated any remaining public favor for the program. “Women in all aspects of the war effort, once celebrated, were now attacked by the media as self-serving individuals who jeopardized the abilities of returning male soldiers to survive the postwar economy.” This idea is consistent with the argument that women advance only during war times, but regress back to their previous state as the war ends. The WASP program serves as an anomaly to this theory as they have significantly impacted the stance of women both in the military and on the home front, and continue to pave new roads for females in aviation.


From it’s creation, the WASP program continuously broke boundaries and raised new questions about equality, both in the skies and on the ground. With an unjust society and cultural norms confining women for so long, the brave women of the WASP program redefined notions of women and war as well as notions about gender constructions and their enforcements. These women paved a new road for women’s rights, construing a new image of the American woman fighting for her country not behind her husbands and brothers, but alongside them. “Their contributions and accomplishments remained unrecognized by the military for over thirty years, but the WASP’s exploration into new arenas of aviation had a significant impact on all generations of women to come.”


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