Women have a long, but underappreciated history in the American military, serving in every conflict from the American Revolution to the current War on Terror. From their early days as cooks and nurses, to the combat roles they fulfill today, the roles of women have evolved with the military.
The first women to serve in the military did so because their husbands were fighting in the American Revolution. These women were mostly cooks, nurses, and laundresses, but their support roles enabled combat soldiers to stay healthy on the front lines.
Deborah Sampson was discontented with the limited role she could play in the American Revolution, so she took matters into her own hands. Pretending to be a man, she served in a Light Infantry unit during the war. She fought in many battles in upstate New York, receiving injuries to her leg and head. She was discovered as a woman at the end of the conflict, but her commanding officer, General John Paterson, honorably discharged her and thanked her for her service.
The American Civil War brought women closer to the front lines than ever before. The emergence of battlefield hospitals just behind the battle placed women in harm’s way.
During the war, Dr. Mary Walker became the first female surgeon in the United States Army when she volunteered to serve the Union forces. She worked diligently as a surgeon, crossing enemy lines and helping civilians injured during battle. She was captured by the Confederacy in 1864 and served as a prisoner of war for several months. Walker is most famous for becoming the first, and thus far, only woman to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
World War I
The importance of women in support positions in prior wars convinced the Army to open the military to women on an official level. Between 1917 and 1918, over 30,000 women joined the military, and several hundred of them died while serving. As a result of their efforts during World War I, military leaders began to debate whether or not women should be allowed a career path in the branches of service, or if women should only be used in times of national crisis.
World War II
Women found themselves pressed into ever greater service during World War II, having access to a variety of roles as pilots, drivers, and mechanics, as well as their traditional positions. The war saw almost half a million women in uniform in both theaters of the conflict.
The valuable role women played in World War II, and President Harry Truman’s drive for change in the military led to the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. For the first time, women were recognized as full members of the American military and could claim benefits as a result. Women who chose to serve could make a career for themselves in the Army or Navy.
Korean and Vietnam Wars
Tens of thousands of women volunteered in the Korean and Vietnam wars, primarily as nurses. During this time, women also made strides across all branches of service, donning Marine and Air Force uniforms to serve alongside their sisters in the Army and Navy.
The late 1960s brought significant social changes to the United States, many of them led by women. The Women’s Rights movement fought for equality in the workplace, carved out a place for women in the political arena, and opened further opportunities in higher education.
The military also made changes to the treatment of women, specifically by allowing them into the service academies. This change occurred more than two years after Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college, granted women access to the Corps of Cadets. Women enrolling in the Corps of Cadets and service academies were monumental for their role in the military, as for the first time, they could achieve officer status, placing them in positions of leadership and authority within all branches of the military.
After a relatively quiet decade, the American military sprang into action during the first Gulf War in 1991. Women served with distinction in the war, and female pilots finally won the right to fly combat missions. By the end of the decade, women served on combat ships and flew warplanes from American aircraft carriers. Women did suffer a setback in 1994, when Secretary of Defense Les Asprin refused to allow women to serve in units whose primary purpose was ground combat.
The early 21st century has provided continued success for women in the military. Colonel Linda McTague became the first female commander of a fighter squadron, while women in the Army and Marines edged ever closer to full combat duty.
In January 2013, Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, lifted the ban on women in combat roles and gave the military two years to complete integration. By August 2015, two women completed the prestigious Army Ranger School, leading to a decree from the Pentagon that all combat jobs must be open to women. The decision to open combat jobs to women is groundbreaking, not only because it expands the roles women can take in the military, but also because it opens opportunities for women to advance into the highest ranks of the military.
Examining the developing role of women in military history shows favorable momentum towards positions of high ranking officials held by females in the near future. As the evolution of women in the military continues, the United States is on a powerful track towards fully leveraging the power, intelligence, and influence of female military leaders.
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U.S. Military Lifts Ban on women in Combat, The History Channel
Women’s History, U.S. Department of Defense
Women in the Army, U.S. Army
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