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The Little Colonel That Could: Mary Hallaren and the Fight for Women in the Military

After World War II ended, government and military leaders were ready to return women to their domestic roles. But one woman had other ideas.

According to military leaders and members of Congress, wartime necessity meant there were jobs women could do so that men could fill other, more important jobs. The consensus was that women were not supposed to be in the military; women’s wartime military service was simply an emergency measure. Congress designated that the WAC, for example, would last only for “the duration of the war plus six months.”

Mary Hallaren, who joined the military in 1942, had other ideas. She was one of the earliest recruits to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was the early version of the Women’s Army Corps. Like the majority of WAACs, she remained in service when Congress gave the women full military status in 1943, creating the Women’s Army Corps. Hallaren supervised all WACs serving in Europe during the war. After the fighting ended, she was promoted to colonel and became the director of the Women’s Army Corps. She quickly gained the nickname “the little colonel,” because she stood only five feet tall. Colonel Hallaren may have been short, but she had a long-reaching vision. At a time when everyone else expected servicewomen to go back home, Hallaren was fighting for something different — the recognition that the United States military could still use women in peacetime.

A lot of work had gone into creating spaces for women in the military during World War II. New training facilities and programs had to be developed. Since women were not allowed to fight on the front lines, they would need a different kind of preparation to help Uncle Sam. Uniforms had to be designed. Recruiting efforts were carefully planned. By the end of the war, Hallaren had seen all the hard work and missteps it had taken to marshal American womanpower as a wartime resource.

And after the war, military personnel were still needed to create the new peacetime world. Not all soldiers would return stateside; many would be sent to new stations overseas.

Colonel Hallaren believed it made no sense to make women leave the military when they were only just beginning to show what they could accomplish when the nation called on them. In light of the continuing need for a U.S. presence around the world, it would be foolhardy for the American government to completely eliminate this important resource.

She took her fight to Congress, going to battle in the name of thousands of servicewomen who also believed they had more to give their country. “We must put it very simply,” Hallaren told members of Congress, “we can’t afford to turn back a page in history — we mustn’t make the same mistake twice.”