Skip to Main Content

Women of Lowell

Mary A. Hallaren (1907 - 2005)

''You don't have to be six feet tall to have a brain that works.''1

Image: Colonel Mary Hallaren, "The Little Colonel."2


Mary Agnes Hallaren (1907-2005) was born in Lowell, MA, on May 4, 1907. After graduating from Lowell High School, she attended Lowell Normal School (a precursor of UMass Lowell) where she was trained as a teacher. After earning her degree, Hallaren taught junior high school and “during summer vacations, went on long hitchhiking trips across Canada, Mexico, Europe, and even China—a highly unusual undertaking for women in those days.” 

When the United States entered World War II, Hallaren saw her brothers and other male friends joining up and said “to me there was no question but that women should serve.”4 The problem was, at five feet tall, Hallaren was not tall enough to meet the minimum height requirement. She remembered that in order to get into the military she stood on her tiptoes and convinced the recruiter to overlook her short stature. By doing so, in 1942 she was able to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS), which later became the Womens Army Corps (WAC). She quickly rose the ranks and earned leadership positions. As a Captain, she was the commander of the first women's division deployed to the European theater.  This unit served in England, France, and Italy. In 1948, Hallaren became the first woman to reach the rank of Colonel, which was the highest rank women were permitted to attain at that time.

In the years following the war, many were calling for women's military units to be disbanded.  Hallaren lobbied to maintain their positions in the peacetime forces and was one of the primary advocates of women being integrated into the services and given full military status. On June 12, 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, was passed. This law made women permanent, regular members of the U.S. armed forces.5 Following the passage of this law, “Colonel Hallaren became the first woman, except for nurses, to receive a commission in the regular army”. 

Hallaren was the director of the WAC from 1947-1953. She was respected by the troops who served under her command. Many of them viewed her as a “godmother of women in the American military” as they “continued to struggle to find their places in the male-dominated military establishment.”7,8  Hallaren retired from the WAC in 1960.

Image: Mary Hallaren.9


After retiring, Mary Hallaren became the first director of the organization Women in Community Service (WICS), where she worked for the next 34 years. Initially, WICS was focused on recruiting women to participate in various community service organizations, particularly Job Corps. The mission gradually expanded and WICS became a full social service organization, teaching women in need job and child care skills, helping them transition back into society after incarceration, and more.

For her wartime service, Hallaren earned the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and the Croix de Guerre of France.10 She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996, and was one of the featured subjects in the book “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw.11

Hallaren died at age 97 in 2005, and was buried in Lowell.


1.10. Wolfgang Saxon, "Col. Mary A. Hallaren, 97; Led WACS Into Regular Army," New York Times, March 9, 2005, The New York Times.
2. Patricia McCafferty, “Mary A. Hallaren: Little Colonel,” University of Lowell Magazine, Spring 1988, 70. University Archives, Box 10, Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
3.  Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, (New York: Random House, 1998), 140.
4. Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, 139.
5. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, "Women’s Armed Services Integration Act," Encyclopedia Britannica,, accessed March 22, 2023.
6. Peter Ward, “Col. Hallaren was truly one of the ‘greatest generation’” [Newspaper clipping, Obituary],  Lowell Sun. Lowell Files Collection, Vertical Files, Box 33, Folder LF.H1535, Center for Lowell History,  University of Massachusetts Lowell. 
7. Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, 149.
8. Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, 144.
11. "Mary A. Hallaren," National Women's Hall of Fame.