In 1942 Mildred McAfee took a leave of absence from serving as president of Wellesley College to become the first director of the organization that would become the WAVES. Congress passed enabling legislation for women to serve in the Navy in July of that year. The law specified a top rank of lieutenant commander, and at 42 McAfee was young enough to fit the age bracket. In the following excerpt from her U.S. Naval Institute oral history, she describes some of her early on-the-job challenges.
My understanding is that the Navy resisted very much the whole idea of having women in the service, but then they began to see that the manpower shortage might prevent their doing some of the things they needed to do. This was a case of the nation being at war and men being drafted. Everything was revised, and here was a very direct way in which a woman could get into something that was really going to further the war effort. Congress decided to establish it on a different basis from the one tried earlier for the Army—as a women’s auxiliary corps. Our women were going to be in the Navy and under the control of the naval officials.