History of Women in the US Military
Whether as volunteers to care for the wounded, disguised as men to fight alongside them, or working their way through loopholes to get enlisted, women have served since long before it was officially allowed on paper.
Now that all of the restrictions have been lifted, women can be found in every branch of the Armed Forces. But let’s take a look through history and see how women fought to get to this point.
When were women allowed in the military?
There have been women in the United States Army since the Revolutionary War, and women continue to serve in it today. As of 2020, there were 74,592 total women on active duty in the US Army, with 16,987 serving as officers and 57,605 enlisted. While the Army has the highest number of total active duty members, the ratio of women-men is lower than the US Air Force and the US Navy, with women making up 15.5% of total active duty Army in 2020
The Beginning: Revolutionary War
Some women even went another step beyond travelling with the soldiers and became soldiers themselves. Margaret Corbin and Deborah Sampson are well-noted in history for disguising themselves as a men and fighting in combat:
- Deborah Sampson served for multiple years before her true gender was discovered.
- Margaret Corbin travelled in disguise with her husband to the front lines of the Battle of Fort Washington. She helped him load his cannon and continued fighting after he had been shot by enemy fire, being shot three times herself. After the war, she was given a military pension in acknowledgement of her efforts in the war. Years after her death, she was reburied at West Point with full military honors.
Other women, such as Lydia Darragh and Nancy Hart, became spies on behalf of the Patriots and passed along crucial knowledge to Army Generals.
Women in Civil War
Women working as nurses in the military also became much more official during this time. Approximately 3,000 women served as nurses for the Union Army.
One such woman was Clara Barton, a legend in her own right who also founded the Red Cross. Barton received a special “military pass” that allowed her to travel directly onto the battlefield with her medical wagon. She treated wounded soldiers as the war was fought around her.
Dorothea Dix was is also a well-known figure from this time, appointed superintendent of the United States Army Nurses for the Union. She pushed for high standards and provided opportunities for her “army of nurses.”
As in the Revolutionary War, women also disguised themselves and fought as men during the Civil War. Historians estimate that around 1,000 women cross-dressed and fought on both sides of the conflict. And women continued to work as spies on both sides as well.
World War I
But women turned out to support the war in droves and by June 1918, just over a year later, more than 3,000 female American nurses were deployed overseas to British-operated hospitals in France and along the front lines. They cared for service members and civilians who were injured, backing the Allied troops.
In addition to serving as nurses in Europe, women also served at home in the United States. Due to the large numbers of men being sent to fight overseas, the Armed Forces needed to find replacements for the roles left open on home shores. The US Navy found a loophole in a naval act that would allow women to serve in non-commissioned officer and non-combat roles.
Around 12,000 women were enlisted to serve in the rank yeoman, dubbed “yeomanettes,” working as clerks as well as telephone and radio operators. The US Army Signal Corps also enlisted women to work as telephone and switchboard operators, nicknamed the “Hello Girls.” They worked in high-pressure situations very close to the front lines in France, but they were not officially recognized for their work or status as veterans until 1979.
It’s important to note that while women served and supported the war effort, they did not have the right to vote in the United States until the 19th Amendment was ratified by Congress in 1920, nearly two years after World War I had ended.
World War II
The US Army formed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), which allowed women to serve in the Army on an auxiliary, temporary basis. However, as the war continued, recruiting became more difficult. US Representative Edith Nourse Rogers urged Congress to allowed women to actually enlist in the Army. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was created in 1943, allowing women to officially become servicemembers in the US Army at home as well as overseas. Women who enlisted in WAC received the same pay, benefits, and rank as their male counterparts. The success of both WAAC and WAC inspired other military branches to follow suit.
The Marine Corps enlisted women in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. The Coast Guard formed the Women’s Reserve, called SPARS, which comes from the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, or “Always Ready,” (You can read more about military mottos in our article: HERE). The Navy formed the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). These women worked non-combat roles including clerical work as in WWI, but they also:
- drove vehicles
- repaired airplanes
- worked in laboratories and cryptology
- served as radio and telephone operators
- rigged parachutes
- test-flew planes
- some were even able to train male servicemembers in air combat tactics
In total, nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform during WWII. 57,000 of those served in the Army Nurse Corps, and another 11,000 were in the Navy Nurse Corps. While these jobs were considered “non-combat” they still brought women to the front-lines where they would tend the wounded even under enemy fire.
Many women won military honors for their efforts. One such woman was Army Colonel Ruby Bradley, a nurse in the Army Nurse Crops, who was captured and kept as a prisoner of war (POW) at an internment camp in the Philippines for 37 months. Even as a POW, Col. Bradley continued her commitment to serving as a nurse in wartime, performing 230 major surgeries, and delivering 13 babies while in the camp under harsh conditions. In total, 432 women were killed in action during WWII, and 88 were held as POWs.
Women’s roles in the military during WWII were crucial to the war effort, and it was the first time that they were afforded true rank and title. And while many appreciated the work of female servicemembers, sexist attitudes stigmatized and mocked the jobs they did.
Sexual harassment was common, and there were even rumors that the programs to include women in the military were a Nazi plot to undermine the US Armed Forces. All branches also emphasized maintaining “femininity” while serving, which meant that uniforms included impractical skirts instead of pants, and nail polish, makeup, and feminine hairstyles were encouraged, even on the front lines.
After WWII had ended, many women hoped to continue their military careers, but instead found themselves being pushed out of their jobs so that the men returning from war could have them. Many women would struggle for decades to obtain veteran status and utilize the benefits that should have been afforded to them for their service during the war.
The US entered the Korean War in 1950, with women already allowed to serve as full, permanent members of all branches of the military. In 1948, seeing the positive impact women had in the military during WWII, President Harry S. Truman had signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in law. Prior to this law, women had only been allowed to serve as nurses during peacetime, which meant that all those women who had served in other ranks during WWII had to leave their positions after the war had ended. But now they were allowed to keep them, to an extent.
While the law allowed women to serve in the military regardless of peace-status, the act restricted the number of women allowed to only 2% of each branch, as well as limiting to number of women who could become officers. Women were also automatically discharged from their positions if they became pregnant, and they were not allowed to command men or serve in combat roles. But this law was a step in a the right direction. And just a month later, President Truman also passed the Integration of the Armed Forces executive order, which desegregated the military and allowed Black women to serve in all branches as well.
So, when the US entered the Korean War, the Armed Forces were well-positioned to utilize the women serving in their ranks. 120,000 women served in active duty roles during US involvement in the war from 1950 to 1953. These women took on new roles like military police officers, and engineers, and they continued to serve as nurses. Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) were used during the Korean War, which provided fully functioning hospitals stationed in combat zones.
1970’s and Vietnam War
During the nearly 20-years of the Vietnam War, approximately 11,000 women were stationed in Vietnam. 90% of those women were nurses in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and most of them actually volunteered to go. Women also served as air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, and clerks, both at home and abroad. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson opened promotions for women to general and flag ranks. In 1972, women were allowed to command units that included men.
In 1975, two years after the war in Vietnam had concluded, the Pentagon announced that pregnant women would be allowed to remain in the military.
In 1976, women were admitted to all service academies, and in 1977 basic training became integrated.
WAC was disbanded in 1978 as all female forces were being integrated, so a separate branch of the Army for women was no longer necessary.
1980’s – Present
Throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s there were a lot of wins for women in the military, and a lot of “firsts.” These included:
- the first woman to become a Navy fighter pilot
- the female four-star general in the Army
- the first woman selected to be first captain of the Corps of Cadets at West Point
- the first woman to be a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard
- the first female Surgeon General of the Army, and so many more
During the Gulf War, from 1990-1991, more than 40,000 women deployed to combat zones despite the fact that they could not technically serve in direct combat roles.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton rescinded the “Risk Rule", which allowed women to serve in all positions in the military except for direct ground combat roles. This enabled women to engage in other roles though, such as aviators, sailors, and Air Force personnel, allowing them to get closer and closer to full combat.
In 2005, the first Silver Star was awarded to a woman for direct combat action. Army Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester received the honor for her bravery during an enemy ambush on her supply convoy in Iraq.
Finally, in 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that restrictions on women in combat would be lifted entirely, allowing female service members to serve in directground combat roles. In 2015, this was finally put into action. As long as women were able to complete the necessary training and requirements, they could serve in almost any role in the Armed Forces, opening up hundreds of thousands of job opportunities. Since this change was enacted, women have gone on to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School or complete Navy SEAL officer assessment and selection, proving that women have the ability to do even the most difficult jobs within the military. More than 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 and more than 9,000 have earned combat action badges.
Today women make up 16% of the US Armed Forces. They serve in all branches of the military and are continuing to turn out. There are more active-duty women serving in the Armed Forces than there have ever been before.
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