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Picture Perfect Images and Realities of Military Nursing During the World Wars

Class 5: A Proud Profession: Women’s Work and Entrance into the Military


The fifth class investigates the work that women performed during World War II, when many of them entered the workforce for the first time. Even though women have always labored, during the war the government needed large numbers of females who had not previously worked outside the home to help the war effort. This class provides an overview of the new fields women entered during the period, but focuses on military nursing. Doris Weatherford’s second chapter in American Women and World War II, “Calling all Nightingales,” reveals the problems the government faced recruiting nurses during the war, as well as the significant changes that the conflict created within the profession. “Women in Uniform,” chapter three of The Home Front and Beyond, by Susan Hartmann, specifically discusses the history of women in the military during World War II, as well as the experiences of military nurses, creating a comparison between the two. Chapter two, “Victory for the Angels of Mercy,” of D’Ann Campbell’s Women at War with America, focuses on military nurses, but also talks about the experiences of civilian nurses, creating an additional way to compare nurses’ varied experiences. The introduction of No Time for Fear, by Diane Burke Fessler, provides a brief history of nursing in the armed forces that demonstrates how training for official military nursing did not really begin until World War II. Within the experiences of military nurses, Susan Godson’s Serving Proudly explores the Navy Nurse Corps and provides specific insight into the distinct organization during World War II.

The recruiting brochure and The Army Nurse newsletters featured in Additional Online Resources provide the history of nursing and explain nurses’ experiences during their service from the perspective of World War II. The Army Nurse brochure is government recruitment material for the armed forces, but unlike the posters it uses extensive text to relay its message, rather than images. The brochure creates a more nuanced picture of nursing than the posters by describing to readers some of the challenging realities of wartime nursing. Conversely, servicewomen produced The Army Nurse newsletters, but the periodicals reflect many of the same themes as the recruiting brochure.

Class Resources
  • Campbell, D’Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, Chap. 2.
  • Fessler, Diane Burke. No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996, Introduction.
  • Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001, Chap. 6.
  • Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982, Chap. 3.
  • Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. New York: Facts on File, 1990, Chap. 2.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. How did the public’s views of military nurses compare to its views of regular servicewomen and civilian nurses during World War II? Why were there differences between the two perspectives?
  2. How do the duties and experiences of nurses in the armed forces during World War I compare to those of martial nurses during World War II?
  3. What types of jobs did military nurses perform during World War II? How did this work compare to the glamourized images of nursing in military recruitment materials?
  4. How do the materials in Additional Online Resources that present the history of nursing and women’s experiences in the field compare to the more recent, contemporary readings? What themes and issues come up in both the readings and online resources?
  5. What was the Army’s goal in presenting the histories of nursing you examined in the Additional Online Resources section? What were the authors’ goals in presenting the history of nursing in the readings? Are all histories created to be persuasive and achieve some type of goal? Compare the two types of sources and explain your thoughts for each.
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