Since the United States military was established, many women have accomplished unimaginable feats of courage and fortitude that have distinguished them within the ranks, ranging from saving lives as battlefield nurses to defending fellow soldiers in armed combat. The eight women highlighted below were able to not only achieve success within their respective branches of the military but they also positively impacted the U.S. military as a whole.
Lieutenant General Patricia Horoho
Soldiers often encounter physically traumatic events, and military nurses, like Patricia Horoho, are at the forefront of offering aid to casualties of war. As a career military nurse. Horohoo went on to become the first nurse and first woman to ever be nominated and confirmed as Army Surgeon General in December 2011. As a foundation for her career as a military nurse, Horoho earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and two master’s degrees, one in clinical trauma nursing and one in national resource strategy. With this educational experience under her belt, Horoho was able to participate at every level of army medicine, providing innovative, precision health care to soldiers suffering from a variety of ailments.
Before being nominated to become the Army’s Surgeon General, Horoho received several honors, such as being recognized as a Nurse Hero after administering first aid to 75 individuals following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She also quickly advanced through many esteemed positions, which allowed her to perform tasks like overseeing military care facilities and assisting in the creation of federal health care management policies at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. As Surgeon General, Horoho fully integrated public health, medical care, dental care, and warrior care into one overarching approach, allowing army medicine to offer more effective treatment and care options for soldiers.
Having logged nearly 4,000 hours flying various military aircraft, in March 2011, Margaret Woodward took a historic step forward for women in combat when she led the opening eleven days of the air war against Libya, making her the first woman to ever direct an air-based military campaign. This campaign earned her a spot in Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2011, as she quickly became a role model for women around the world.
Woodward made history again when she led the reform of the U.S. military’s sexual assault prevention and response protocols. She assembled a task force of expert lawyers, researchers, investigators, and advocates who are now responsible for addressing the issue of sexual assault within the military. This effort, in collaboration with a larger effort by the Air Force to vigorously prosecute sexual offenders in the military, has helped increase the likelihood of sexual assault victims reporting their cases to military officials. At the time of her retirement in April 2014, Woodward had become renowned within the U.S. Air Force, and the impact she made during her career continues as efforts to identify and properly address instances of sexual assault in the military are now making more progress than ever.
Maria Urso has distinguished herself as a top scholar and scientist while serving at the U.S. Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). In July 2012, Urso received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for her contributions to the study of cellular mechanisms of musculoskeletal injury and repair, the results of which have positively impacted both soldiers and civilians. Although Urso served four years in the U.S. Army as a captain at USARIEM, she chose to stay on as a civilian after her military commission ended. Through her research, Maria Urso continues to expand therapeutic methods of relieving skeletal-muscular injuries caused by severe strain, ischemia reperfusion (trauma brought on by surgical procedures or tourniquets), and blast injuries, opening new innovative avenues for injured soldiers and civilians to receive effective medical treatment and improve recovery.
Navy Admiral Michelle Howard
In anticipation of a career in military service, Michelle Howard attended the U.S. Naval Academy to prepare herself to join and graduate from the Army’s Command and General Staff College with a master’s degree in military arts and sciences. While participating in military operations like Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Howard rose through the ranks of the Navy as she advanced her knowledge of military command and leadership. Upon taking command of the USS Rushmore on March 12, 1999, Howard made history when she became the first African-American woman to ever command a U.S. Navy vessel. Several firsts followed this, as she eventually became the first African-American woman to reach a 3-star ranking in any branch of the U.S. military, and most recently she became the first ever female 4-Star General. Before her retirement in 2016, Howard was an increasingly important contributor to the U.S. Navy, leading several sensitive naval operations during her career, including the 2009 rescue of Captain Phillips, a cargo ship captain who was abducted by Somali pirates.
Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester
In March 2007, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester and her National Guard unit were escorting a supply convoy through enemy territory in Iraq when insurgents launched a surprise attack. Hester used her seven years’ worth of military training and experience to lead her team through the kill zone and into a more advantageous flanking position, giving her unit the upper hand against the insurgents. Following this event, Hester was granted the Silver Star medal, making her the first female soldier to receive this honor since World War II.
Annie G. Fox
Annie G. Fox was the first woman in American military history to ever receive a Purple Heart. As Head Nurse of the Station Hospital at Hickam Field, Hawaii in 1941, Fox was responsible for a team of nurses who worked frantically to treat hundreds of victims of the Japanese airborne attacks on Pearl Harbor. During the attacks, Fox is said to have displayed ceaseless courage, leadership, and efficiency as a military nurse, saving the lives of many American soldiers at a time when the ranks of Army Nurse Corps consisted of fewer than 1,000 members. Though the Purple Heart she was awarded after the attack was soon rescinded when the criteria for receiving the award changed, Fox was granted a Bronze Star Medal in October 1944 to commemorate her acts of heroism during the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Lieutenant Reba Whittle
On September 27, 1944, Reba Whittle, an air nurse, was aboard a C-47 medical evacuation plane that was shot down over German territory, leaving her and her fellow survivors to be captured and interned by German soldiers. As a result, Whittle became the only American female prisoner of war in Europe during World War II, though not granted formal status as such. During her internment, she was allowed to provide critical medical care to patients at a number of POW hospitals throughout the region. The State Department was eventually notified of her circumstances by International Red Cross workers, and her release was negotiated. Once she was back home, Reba Whittle received the Purple Heart for the injuries she sustained during the 1944 crash and an Air Medal for her service as an air nurse.
In November 1866, Cathay Williams made the brave decision to enlist in the U.S. Army, becoming the first documented African American woman to ever serve in the U.S. military. Williams remained enlisted for two years while disguised as a man using the pseudonym “William Cathay.” Williams’s short-lived military career saw her assigned to an all-African American unit, although she quickly contracted a case of smallpox that left her hospitalized several times. A surgeon eventually discovered that Williams was a woman, leading to her immediate discharge.
Throughout American history, there have been countless women who served the U.S. military, whether directly as combatants during physical conflicts or in supportive roles in essential services. Through a mixture of tact, skill, leadership and willpower, the aforementioned women achieved their personal goals and also had a positive impact on the U.S. military as a whole.
Established in 1819, Norwich University is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.
Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Military History program takes an unbiased and global approach towards exploring military thought, theory and engagement throughout recorded history. The unique curriculum of the online Master of Arts in Military History program was developed by the distinguished faculty of Norwich University and guided by the goals outlined by the American Historical Association. This highly regarded program is designed to help build your proficiency as a historian and places our world’s military achievements and conflicts in a chronological, geographical, political and economic context.
How the Machine Gun Changed Combat During World War I [infographic]
Career Outlook: Military Analyst
7 Influential Women in the Military
Meet the US Military's Three Four-Star Women, ABC News
American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), U.S. Army
Famous Women Veterans Every American Should Know, National Veterans Foundation
The 14 Most Impressive Women In The US Military, Business Insider
Horoho Takes Oath As First Nurse, Female Surgeon General, U.S. Army
General's Last Assignment Unwanted, But Life-Changing, Military Times
Major General Margaret Woodward, Time
Michelle Howard, Britannica
Admiral Michelle Howard, U.S. Navy Office of Information
Army Researcher Receives Top White House Award for Scientific Excellence, U.S. Army
The Bravery of Army Nurse Annie G. Fox at Pearl Harbor, National Women’s History Museum
Cathay Williams, U.S. Army
Female Soldier Receives Silver Star in Iraq, U.S. Army
Silver Star Recipient a Reluctant Hero, National Public Radio