In light of recent reports that the Marine Corps is postponing a minimum physical fitness test for women after more than half of female recruits failed to meet USMC standards, LIFE.com decided to look back at how women in the armed forces were covered in the early days of LIFE magazine. To our amazement, we found a series of photos by the great Alfred Eisenstaedt chronicling the very first class of women — at the University of New Hampshire, as it turns out — to undergo training similar to that of men in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
As LIFE magazine told its readers in a January 1943 article titled, “New Hampshire Coeds Toughen Up for War”:
If, as the natives whisper, Daniel Webster sometimes revisits his childhood haunts when the wild winds whistle through the New Hampshire hills, he would find no more baffling sign of the U.S. at war than the sight of 650 rugged bare-legged girls drilling on a bleak, snow-covered field. These girls, students at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, are the first organized college group in the U.S. to undergo pre-graduation training like men’s ROTC which will fit them specifically for service in the WAAC, WAVES, and other auxiliaries of the armed forces. [Their training] abandons purely recreational activities in favor of military drill and calisthenics, emphasizes body building and toughening achieved through hiking, conditioning exercises, and a going-over on the rigorous, man-sized obstacle course.
Thus far the only hitch in the rigid training regimen developed when the university’s imminent MilitaryArt Ball made it necessary to let up on all exercises for a few days because the girls were too stiff to dance.