Published: Dec. 1, 2011 By

woman on airplane black and whiteHow did World War II fuel a surge in opportunities for women?

When Tom Brokaw wrote his paean to the Greatest Generation, he left them out. Filmmaker Ken Burns skipped them when he documented The War.

They are the estimated 100,000 women who joined the military during World War II. The Navy Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), their Coast Guard counterparts, the SPARS, and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) provided critical support to the American war effort.

“It’s really a shame,” says Margaret Thorngate, 88, who served as a WAVES yeoman, or secretary, in San Francisco. “Nobody under the age of 60 has even heard of the WAVES.”

But CU journalism associate professor Kathleen Ryan hopes to ensure the women’s contributions are never forgotten with her documentary and multi-platform media project, Homefront Heroines.

“Part of the appeal of the story is that it’s a largely untold history,” says Ryan, who joined the CU-Boulder faculty in 2010. “They really have not received the recognition they deserve.”

Ryan, whose mother served in the WAVES, spent 20 years working in television before going to graduate school at the University of Oregon. There, she decided that the Navy women would make the perfect subject for her dissertation.

The documentary is based on interviews with 52 WAVES and SPARS she did for her doctoral project, focusing on three women, including Thorngate. The film also makes use of five rolls of 16-millimeter film of female vets that have “never seen the light of day.”

Last summer Thorngate, who helped paint the USS Missouri during the war, visited the venerable battleship in Hawaii with Ryan for the documentary.

“When people aboard the Missouri heard I was a World War II vet, they were all very interested,” Thorngate says. “They start realizing that this is a generation that is passing by.”

The film is currently in post production. Ryan plans on pitching it to public television, cable channels and film festivals when it’s completed.

But she’s also pushing the story out on newer media platforms with the help of intern Laura Hampton, a 22-year-old CU journalism student. Besides leveraging such “old school” media as Facebook and Twitter, Hampton is using a “geotagging” smart phone application to “tag” physical locations with stories, photos and videos related to WAVES history.

“Kathleen is sharing a part of history that a lot of people don’t know,” Hampton says. “It’s really cool being a girl and seeing these women take that role, which was really unheard of at the time.”

The WAVES program began in 1942. The strictly male hierarchy imagined the “gals” could handle a few basic but crucial tasks — secretarial work, storekeeping, decoding messages.

But it didn’t take long, Ryan says, for women to move into other, more critical roles. They got into weather forecasting and helped repair planes. They trained pilots and served as gunners’ mates teaching seamen how to shoot moving targets from moving vehicles.

Many of the WAVES, especially those in instructional positions, had been teachers before the war.

“Early on, men were skeptical, but very quickly it became evident that women were more successful in training competent pilots than men,” Ryan says. “And so [men] pushed to be trained by women.”

Virtually all male trainers, by contrast, had come up through the Navy without previous teaching experience. Simply put, many of the women were better teachers.

Becoming a WAVE was no easy task. While the Navy accepted most able-bodied men, women had to be at least 20 years old, have finished high school and spent time on the job or pursuing higher education. To become an officer, women had to have completed at least two years of college.

“Initially, a lot of the women who came through had gone to teachers’ colleges,” Ryan says. “They had taught, they were a little older, they were good at this . . . This was their skill.”

The pioneer WAVES also had to fight ugly prejudice. World War II marked the first time women were allowed in the military.

Ryan says men often resented their presence, as women entering the military were initially pitched as freeing men to fight overseas, but there was a perception that women were taking men’s jobs.

“Therefore, there were lots of derogatory rumors out there saying that the only women who joined were either prostitutes or lesbians,” Thorngate says. “But after a year or two the women proved themselves to be able to do the job without any ‘immoral conduct.’ ”

Ryan says the women she interviewed said they wanted to serve the country during a time of need, but that was far from their only motivation. Many joined because it was a steady job and an avenue for more education, although the G.I. Bill did not pass until 1944.

And then there were the uniforms. Designed by the famous French-American fashion designer Main Bocher, the Navy’s female togs were much coveted following the privation of the Depression years. With blue serge jackets and skirts in a classic cut, white or light blue blouses and a silky tie, the uniforms stood in stark contrast to the dowdy khaki outfits worn by women in the Women’s Army Corps, also known as WAC.

Ryan initially suspected the notion that women joined for the uniforms was a case of gross stereotyping. But she found all of her interview subjects “mentioned it — unsolicited — how gorgeous the uniforms were and how important that was.”

Thorngate is pleased that Ryan’s work will preserve an important part of American history, especially as her generation dies.

“Kathleen has been very instrumental and helpful in really bringing us back to life,” says Thorngate, who lives in Florence, Ore. “We are not dead! There is something to be appreciated in what we did.”

A snapshot of CU-Boulder student soldiers today

  • Total student veterans and ROTC participants on the campus: 1,239
  • Veterans on campus: 797
    Women: 92
    Men: 705
  • Enrollment in an ROTC program on campus: 442
    Women: 94
    Men: 348
  • Students on active duty: 92