Women have been serving in the military in a variety of roles since before the nation’s inception. During the American Revolutionary War, many women served as spies and smugglers, and they also fought disguised as men. Primarily though, they filled roles more traditional for that period as cooks and nurses. Those roles continued for women well into the 18th and 19th centuries.
During the Civil War, thousands of women served as nurses on both the Union and Confederate sides. Like the war of independence, several hundred women served disguised as men in the Civil War. Before the war’s end, Mary Edwards Walker received the Medal of Honor. She is the only woman to have earned the award. While the history of women in the military had a slow start, the journey women would travel would get them to where they rightfully belong.
In 1901, the U.S. Army formed the Nurse Corps to help manage epidemics that had struck U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War. The nurses would go on to serve all over the world, tending to troops who were deployed. While they were not formally commissioned officers, they were a part of the U.S. Army.
During World War I, nearly 25,000 women served overseas not just as nurses but also as secretaries, telephone operators and administrative specialists. While several decades had passed since women first started serving in the U.S. military, the history of women in the military was on the brink of a major change. In World War I more than 400 women were killed in action and Navy Lena Sutcliffe Higbee received the Navy Cross.
In World War II the Women’s Army Corps was created and more than 1,000 women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) were trained to fly American military aircraft. In all, 140,000 women served in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, as part of a total of more than 400,000 that served in all services. But while some saw service as pilots, women continued to be limited to service in logistical and communications fields, in addition to nursing where more than 60,000 served worldwide as nurses. The history of women in the military took a big leap forward with the WASPs and Nurse Corps, but it still had a long way to go. By the end of World War II, women had been taken as prisoners of war and some had been killed in action.
Due to the exceptional service of women in the military during World War II, the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1948 and it is a major milestone in the history of women in the military. The bill created a permanent presence of women in the military. Not long after, war broke out again and American women found themselves once again in harm’s way in the Korean War where thousands of them served. It is estimated that during the Korean War, more than 25,000 Women Army Corps and 5,000 nurses served in the U.S. Army.
In March 1962, the first women started to serve in Vietnam in clerical and administrative roles, as well as nurses. By war’s end, more than 800 women had served in various roles in Vietnam and more than 9,000 served as nurses in various medical assignments in country. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson removed promotion and retirement restrictions on female officers in the armed forces. Two years later, President Richard M. Nixon selected two women for promotion to brigadier general: Col. Anna Mae Hays, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, and Col. Elizabeth P. Hoisington, director of the Women’s Army Corps. These promotions were done June 11, 1970 and they are a significant event in the history of women in the military. Within two years, the Army would open all military occupational specialties to women except those that might require combat training or duty. That same year, the ban on women commanding units that included men was lifted. During Vietnam, eight women were killed in action and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett would become the first woman to command a unit in a combat zone.
Women entered the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) beginning in 1969. In 1975, the Army chief of staff approved the consolidation of basic training for men and women. By 1977, combined basic training for men and women became policy, and men and women began integrating in the same basic training units on Fort McClellan, Alabama and Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in September. Similarly, the first gender-integrated class began with the Military Police One-Station-Unit Training at Fort McClellan on July 8, 1977.
Between 1975 and 1979, many rules and regulations concerning women changed and by October 1979, all enlistment qualifications became the same for men and women. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed legislation allowing women to be admitted to all service academies beginning in 1976. In 1978, female sailors and Marines are allowed to serve on non-combat Navy ships. In 1980, the first women cadets graduated from the service academies marking an incredible moment in the history of women in the military.
In 1983 when U.S. forces invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada, several women were deployed, but then returned to the United States when combat exclusion policies were misinterpreted. Eventually, several women served in Operation Urgent Fury and that initial participation allowed the U.S. military to examine the role of women in modern combat.
Several years later in 1989, U.S. Army military police Capt. Linda Bray became the first female to command men in battle during Operation Just Cause. Several hundred women participated in the mission to capture Manuel Noriega. Then in 1990, Operation Desert Shield would mobilize more than 40,000 American women to the Persian Gulf region. Two would be taken as prisoners of war. Between 1991 and 1993, women would be authorized to fly combat missions and serve on ships in combat. In 1998, Navy Capt. Kathleen McGrath becomes the first woman to command a Navy warship and a new phase in the history of women in the military was ushered in.
Women would go on to serve in Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo and other regions between 1992 and 1999 with expanded roles, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 marked a pivotal changing point for military women. As the mission changed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, so did the roles of women in its ranks. With the war on terrorism there was a rapid expansion of jobs and change in roles for military women. In 2003, three female soldiers were taken as prisoners of war at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2004, Col. Linda McTague becomes the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron. In June 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star for her actions during a firefight outside Baghdad. It was the first Silver Star in U.S. military history awarded to a female for direct combat action. In 2008, Gen. Ann Dunwoody becomes the first woman in U.S. military history to achieve the four-star general rank.
In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, at the urging of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lifted the ban on women in direct ground combat roles. Just two years later, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter directed the full integration of women in the armed forces following a 30-day review period required by Congress, which was completed April 7.
In January 2016, all military occupations and positions opened to women, without exception. For the first time in U.S. military history, as long as they qualified and met specific standards, women were able to contribute to the Department of Defense mission with no barriers in their way.
Since then, women have joined the Rangers, Special Forces, infantry and other units that were once closed to men. The history of women in the military moving forward will be written by all those who broke barriers.