The History of Women in the Military: Nearly 250 Years of Bravery and Service

The History of Women in the Military: Nearly 250 Years of Bravery and Service


Celebrating Women’s history month in the military

March is Women’s History Month, and nowhere has the impact of women been clearer than in the U.S. military. Let’s take a quick trip through history to remind ourselves of the strength of women in our military.

Women’s involvement predates their official acceptance for military service. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, as colonial men began joining the Continental Army, many wives, sisters, daughters and mothers went with them. They made it their mission to support the troops any way they could, mending clothes, nursing the wounded, cleaning uniforms and cooking. Some even cleaned cannons.

The involvement of women further increased during the Civil War, when 20,000 women helped grow crops and cooked in the Union Army camps. In addition to sewing and cleaning uniforms and blankets, they went door to door to raise funds for the Army.

It was during this time that nearly 3,000 women began serving in an official capacity as nurses for the Union Army. Two notable military nursing heroes were Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix. Clara Barton, the eventual founder of the Red Cross, received a special “military pass” that allowed her to drive medical wagons straight onto battlefields to help wounded soldiers. As for Dorothea Dix, she was appointed superintendent of the United States Army Nurses for the Union Army.

Even more astonishing, an estimated 1,000 women disguised themselves as men and marched right into battle, fighting on both sides of the Civil War.

By World War I, not only did women serve in nursing roles in dangerous conditions near the front, but it was the first time they were able to openly serve in other roles. With so many men deployed, the U.S. Navy in particular needed replacements stateside. As a result, nearly 12,000 women served as yeoman, mostly working clerical duties, as well as telephone and radio operators and translators. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Signal Corps enlisted women to work as telephone and switchboard operators. These women often worked in stressful conditions, close to the front lines in France.

The advent of WWII brought more opportunities for women, who were crucial to the war effort. For the first time in our history, all branches of the military accepted women in non-combat roles. Nearly 350,000 women served in uniform during WWII. They filled crucial roles, driving vehicles, repairing airplanes, working in laboratories and cryptology, serving as radio and telephone operators, rigging parachutes, test-flying planes and even training their male counterparts in air combat tactics.

During WWII, 57,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps and 11,000 in the Navy Nurse Corps. Many worked right on the front lines and came under enemy fire, with some earning combat decorations. Army Col. Ruby Bradley, a nurse in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, was imprisoned for 37 months in an internment camp in the Philippines. She performed 230 major surgeries and delivered 13 babies during her time as a prisoner of war (POW), despite the harsh conditions.

By the end of WWII, 432 women had been killed in the line of duty and 88 had been taken as POWs.

Women’s involvement in the military increased significantly after WWII, when both the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act and the Integration of the Armed Forces Order were signed in 1948. As a result, women no matter their race, ethnicity, or national origin, were allowed to serve as full, permanent members of the U.S. Armed Forces. While many obstacles remained for these women, 120,000 served in active-duty positions in Korea and 11,000 served in Vietnam.

Pushing Boundaries Today

Today, women serve in all roles in the military, including direct ground combat roles. More than seventeen percent of the U.S. Armed Forces today are women. And as of 2022, 100 women have graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School. Their determination and accomplishments continue to serve our nation well.

So, who’s making military history today? Here’s just a sample of some of the women who have continued to blaze trails within the military:

  • Capt. Kristen Griest in 2016 became the first female Army infantry officer in the nation’s history.
  • Adm. Michelle Howard (Ret.) in 2014 became the first four-star woman in Navy history. She served as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe before retiring in 2017.
  • Then-2nd Lts. Virginia Brodie and Katherine Boy made Marine Corps history in 2016 when they became the service’s first female artillery officers.
  • Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson (Ret.) assumed leadership of U.S. Northern Command in 2016, becoming the first woman to lead a combatant command and, at the same time, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. military history.
  • Lt. Col. Caroline “Blaze” Jensen in 2011 became the first female Air Force reservist named to the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron – you probably know them as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
  • In addition to being the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, former United States Senator Martha McSally is the first female to command a fighter squadron in combat in U.S. history. McSally, a retired colonel, was elected to Congress in 2014.
  • When she was named superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy in 2011, Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, USCG (Ret.) became the first woman to lead a U.S. military service academy.
  • Chief Petty Officer Dominique Saavedra became the first female enlisted sailor to earn her submarine qualification.
  • In 2021, the first female sailor successfully completed the grueling training course to become a Naval Special Warfare combatant-craft crewman — the boat operators who transport Navy SEALs and conduct their own classified missions at sea. Because she is a member of special operations forces, her name has not been released.

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