Jackie Cochran, one of America’s leading aviators, headed the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program during World War II.
Credit: Image courtesy of "Wings Across America" from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Women pilots have as much stamina and endurance … as male pilots doing similar work. Women pilots can safely fly as many hours per month as male pilots.
—Jacqueline Cochran, Director of Women Pilots "Report on Women's Pilot Program" (1944)
In this lesson, students will explore the contributions of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. They will examine portrayals of women in World War II posters (and newsreels) and compare and contrast them with personal recollections of the WASPs. Students will gain an understanding of the importance of the WASP program, which enhanced careers for women in aviation.
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to
From 1941 to 1944, the number of working women in America increased from 14.6 million to 19.4 million. Before World War II, women held positions as secretaries; domestic servants; teachers; and clothing or textile workers. As men went to war, women moved into higher-paying positions in the automotive and steel industries. Others worked for aircraft and ship builders. About 350,000 women served in the U.S. military.1
Many women signed on to become pilots for the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF). Jacqueline Cochran, one of America's leading aviators, directed the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), which merged with Nancy Love's Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) to become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
The vigorous training program demanded 200 hours of flight instruction and 400 hours of ground school. More than 25,000 women applied for the program. Only 1,830 were accepted; 1,074 graduated and became pilots. The WASP program selected the best and brightest women, and trained them to become aviation leaders.
In 1941, aircraft production more than doubled, and the AAF needed pilots to ferry planes from factories to Air Force bases around the world. They needed pilots to tow targets and test new aircraft. The WASPs were just the pilots for the job.
While the program ceased operation on December 20, 1944, it opened up a whole new world of opportunities for women in aviation. The WASPs made important contributions to World War II and enhanced careers for women aviators.
1 Cayton, Andrew, et al, America: Pathways to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2005), 827, 860-61.
This lesson presents three suggested activities and four lesson extensions. Because this lesson allots only two class sessions for the topic, be prepared to select activities that fit within your teaching timeframe and match your curriculum requirements.
Begin the lesson with a discussion of women's roles in the 1940s. Provide historical context about working women using the information contained in the "Background Information for the Teacher" section of this lesson.
Explain that, before World War II, women workers were typically young, single, and self-supported. Married women assumed the responsibilities of maintaining a home and raising a family.
During the war, as men were drafted and sent overseas, thousands of married women entered the workforce. Many of them shouldered the dual responsibilities of earning a living and running a household. Some had not worked outside the home before.
Encourage students to think about what life was like for women during the war. Ask them to imagine themselves as women entering the workforce for the first time, with husbands abroad and children at home. Would they be excited? Anxious? Afraid? How would they adjust to their new roles?
Using the World War II Poster Collection at Northwestern University Library, show some examples of posters that recruited women workers during wartime, such as:
Additional posters are at WASP: Women Pilots of World War II:
At Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Classroom (National Archives) Website, see the following:
As students examine each poster, ask the following questions:
These questions are available on the Women in World War II Posters student worksheet.
If time is limited, refer students to the "Fly Girls" LaunchPad, which provides links to selected posters and the list of discussion questions. Students may use the LaunchPad to work on this activity in class or at home.
Ask students to consider the incentives women had in taking jobs outside the home. Answers might include supporting their country, earning wages for their families, and exploring career opportunities they may not have had before the war.
Conclude the class discussion by emphasizing that women's roles changed again after the war, as men returned home to their jobs, wives, and families. Ask students to consider how women may have felt about giving up their wartime jobs and resuming their homemaking role full-time.
Introduce students to the WASPs. The Program Description on the PBS Fly Girls documentary Website explains the history of the WASP program and its importance during World War II. See the "Background Information for the Teacher" and the "Selected EDSITEment Websites" sections of this lesson for additional information.
Point students to the "Fly Girls" LaunchPad, where they can access Websites that provide fact sheets, timelines, and statistics on the WASPs. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) student worksheet also provides these links. As background reading, ask students to review some of these sites, either in class or as homework.
You may wish to print and distribute the Women in the AAF fact sheet from the National Museum of the United States Air Force Website. Alternately, you may ask students to review the WASP Qualifications and WASP Statistics on the PBS Fly Girls documentary website.
Students may take the online WASP History Quiz to test their reading comprehension.
Explain that "fly girls," as women aviators were called, flew fighter planes at a time when few women held driver's licenses or traveled on their own. During World War II, the media made it seem like flying planes was an exciting and glamorous job for women.
If time permits, show clips from newsreels, available on the PBS Fly Girls documentary, and discuss how WASPs were portrayed in the media. Explain that, while exciting, the job of being a WASP was far from glamorous.
Through individual research or small-group work, ask students to explore the hardships WASPs faced during training and wartime work. Recollections of WASPs, such as the following, are accessible from the "Fly Girls" LaunchPad:
Ask students to compare and contrast the WASPs' personal recollections with portrayals of women in World War II posters (and newsreels, if applicable). What was it really like to be a WASP?
Distribute the What Was It Like to Be a WASP? student worksheet. Students may select a WASP and write a brief essay about her experiences during the war. Or, you may assign a WASP for each student to research.
Use the Assessment Rubric to gauge your students' learning.
Point students to an interactive map that shows a WASP's ferry routes. Have them explore the map, individually or in groups, to give them an idea of the types of assignments WASPs received during wartime.
Ask students to research the types of planes the WASPs flew and develop an interactive exhibit or poster display in which they show and explain the features of those planes.
Ask students to read the article, "Unnecessary and Undesirable," published in Time on May 29, 1944. Ask students to also read Jackie Cochran's final report on the WASP program. Assign sections of Cochran's report that most closely pertain to the issues presented in the Time article.
In class, discuss the critique of the WASP program in Time. What were the key concerns about the program, according to Time? How did Cochran respond to those concerns in her final report?
Ask students to write a persuasive essay for or against the WASP program, providing evidence to support their conclusions. You may wish to divide the class into two groups and have them debate both sides of the issue in class.
Have students research women in aviation history since the 1940s and explore how the WASP program enhanced careers for women aviators. Have them prepare a brief written or oral report on their findings.
It might be helpful to take students on a field trip to a local science museum or air and space museum and look at exhibits on women in aviation. If you cannot arrange a museum visit, a number of museums offer online exhibitions and information about women pilots, such as the National Air and Space Museum's Women in Aviation and Space History database and Women Gallery Guide (PDF).
2 class periods