A Short History of Women in the Military
American women have served this nation in its armed forces with “ability, adaptability, and stability.” In the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, courageous women used disguises and their wits to get the job done. Deborah Sampson posed as Robert Shirtliffe in a Massachusetts Regiment until her sex was discovered. Mary Ludwin (Molly Pitcher) fired her husband’s cannon when he was wounded. The story of Lucy Brewer, the “Female Marine,” aboard the USS Constitution in the War of 1812 has been passed down for generations.
In the Civil War, there were white and black heroines who were suppliers, nurses, saboteurs, spies, and soldiers. Dr. Mary Walker was a lieutenant in the Union Army. She not only was a surgeon and a doctor but was also imprisoned as a spy. After she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, it was rescinded. She refused to turn in her medal, and the honor was finally restored by Congress in 1976.
During the Spanish American War in 1889, 1500 women nurses served under a civilian contract to meet emergency needs. This led to the Army Nurse Corps being formed in 1901, followed by the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. In World War I, some 35,000 women served in our armed forces as nurses and enlisted women in the Navy and Marine Corps.
Over 400,000 women were in the World War II effort, serving in all branches and in all overseas theaters. These women performed a wide range of military jobs from stenographers and technicians to truck drivers and gunner’s mates. There were well over 200 casualties, including Army nurses and female pilots from the Women Air Force Service Pilots. More than 80 nurses were imprisoned in enemy camps, most for over three years. In addition, several hundred women were decorated for their heroic services and deeds.
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave women a permanent place in the armed forces. Since that time, in Korea, in Vietnam, and in peacetime, they have served with commitment, dedication, and sacrifice. Approximately 7500 served in Southeast Asia with eight losing their lives for their country.
Today more than 400,000 women are active duty, reserve, and Guard members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. It is estimated that there are about 1.2 million living women veterans. In today’s armed forces, women are partners with men, comprising over ten percent of the total number. The Department of Defense recently affirmed that women represent an “irreplaceably valuable part of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
The military woman’s story is one of evolutionary gains in leadership, command challenges, job and promotion opportunities, and equality in benefits and compensation.