The idea that only men served in World War II is becoming less ubiquitous, but it still shows up from time to time as a rhetorical talking point, most recently in the Boston Globe’s clickbait thinkpiece. It’s false, of course. More than three million women served in the military during World War II, many on the front lines. The speaker may then backtrack and say that they meant Americans and that women in Russia and other countries don’t count (why not, one wonders). The revised statement is still false; a good 200,000 American women did serve in the military. The speaker may then further backtrack and say that they only meant Americans who served in combat, and then we’ve finally reached a statement that’s more or less true. American women did not serve in combat.
But wait a minute. What do we mean by “serve in combat,” anyway? War is an amorphous force that doesn’t adhere to strict boundaries. Women stationed behind the lines and “out of combat” frequently came under fire from aircraft and artillery. WAC transport ships were torpedoed; Air Force WASPs died in air crashes; Army nurses did the Bataan Death March. Telling these women that, technically, they were classified as noncombatants doesn’t make their casualties any less dead.
You can argue that the male soldiers on average faced more danger and suffered higher casualties, but male soldiers themselves faced varying amounts of danger based on their location and assignment, and we don’t discount their time in combat because someone else got shot at more.
So then, what we really mean by “in combat” is “allowed to shoot back.” Cast in that light, male soldiers appear less inherently heroic and more gifted with an extra advantage that American women were not given. Indeed, throughout the war and across all countries, women served in every capacity they were allowed to and fought for more, while men did everything possible to stand in their way. Photojournalist Lee Miller, for example, was arrested by the US Army for entering the thick of combat to photograph the siege of Saint Malo.
Trying to decide where we draw the line between combat and noncombat positions and which side of it American women fall on immediately raises another question: Why does it matter? Why is it so crucial to establish that American women were never in combat?
The answer is always the same: In order to deny women something. During the war, when Congress was debating the military status of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, one congressman argued that women shouldn’t receive military benefits because they weren’t on the front lines; others retorted that by that logic, General Eisenhower wasn’t entitled to military benefits either. After the war, the WASPs were not recognized as veterans until 1977, weren’t allowed into Arlington Cemetery until 2002, and were then barred from Arlington again in 2015 and had to repeat the same fight again.
Today, the line is often used to exclude female players, characters, and miniatures from reenactments and wargaming. Other times, as in the above thinkpiece, it’s used as proof of male superiority (often coupled with white superiority). This is a self-reinforcing cycle: White men forbid anyone else from entering a field, and then use their dominance in that field as evidence of their superiority, which is then used to justify excluding everyone else even more and consolidating power even further into their hands.
So the question “did American women serve in combat?” exists for no purpose except as a justification to exclude women and diminish their accomplishments. Let’s forget about this question and simply accept that women were crucial contributors to the war effort, in combat or out.