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In light of recent reports of rampant sexual violence against women in America’s armed forces — with an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, “rampant” is hardly too strong a word — combating sexual assault without relying on the military itself to safeguard its female troops is now high on lawmakers’ agendas. In fact, with the news that the Army is investigating yet another officer who might have been preying on those he was charged with protecting, Michigan’s Carl Levin, who heads the Senate’s armed services committee, acknowledged that “the depth of the sexual-assault problem in our military was already overwhelmingly clear before this latest highly disturbing report.”
All the more remarkable, then — and all the more moving, in a way — to recall how America’s very first “women soldiers” were viewed when they came on the scene, seven decades ago. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was founded in May 1942, and the women who first served in the corps were instantly pegged with the now-famous collective moniker, WAACs. (From 1943-1978, renamed the Woman’s Army Corps, or WAC, it was an official branch of the U.S. Army.) More than 150,000 American women served in the corps during World War II, and did their jobs so well, and so uncomplainingly, that no less an authority on proper soldiering than Gen. Douglas MacArthur reportedly characterized the WACs as “my best soldiers.”
When LIFE magazine published an article on the corps just a few months after its inception, in September 1942 — an article that featured a full-page version of Marie Hansen’s striking, now-famous photograph of gas-masked WAACs — the tone of the article was a remarkable mix of the laudatory and the patronizing. (See excerpt below.) But overall, all these years later, the magazine’s take on this strange and perhaps inevitable new phenomenon of American women in uniform comes across as a straightforward piece of reportage — even if, say, describing the formidable head of the corps as a “a svelte and definite Texas lady” might sound almost comically condescending to modern ears.
In LIFE’s own words:
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.