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14 Mar 2023

A Salute to Our Women Service Members for Women’s History Month

By , Graduate Research Assistant

Women have supported the U.S. Military since our country was founded with the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), although they weren't formally recognized as Service members until 1948. Over time, women’s roles to serve our country have evolved over time, but their capability has never wavered. In this piece, we will explore the roles of women throughout our military history related to varying policies, their contributions to our country, and discuss recent research findings about women Service members.

During the Revolutionary War, women found unique ways to aid in the war effort, such as mending clothing, tending to wounds, foraging for food, cooking, cleaning both laundry and cannons, and traveling alongside different militias. In addition, some women disguised themselves as men to fight on the front lines (DeSimone, 2022). Similarly, while women were not allowed to enlist in the Civil War (1861-1865), approximately 1,000 women across the Union and Confederate armies fought while disguised as men (DeSimone, 2022). One of these revolutionary women, Margaret Corbin, was the first woman to receive a military pension (Michals, 2015).

In fact, throughout the Civil War, a further 20,000 women served in other ways (e.g., growing crops, sewing, laundry, collecting donations, running fundraising campaigns). But their greatest contribution was serving as nurses for the Union Army. One such volunteer, Clara Barton, went on to found the Red Cross, an influential relief organization to this day (American Red Cross, 2023).

During the 20th century, women experienced a shift in the recognition of and allowance for their military service. 1901 saw the start of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, with a total employment of 403 nurses; by 1918, that number had grown to 3,000. At the same time, a shortage of men available for clerical “yeoman” duties, such as operating telephones and radios and acting as translators, led the Navy to recruit women for these jobs. The first “yeomanettes” served the Navy between 1917 and 1918 (during WWI [1914–1918]; DeSimone, 2022).

By WWII (1939–1945), the military enlisted women across all branches. The Army had the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Army’s Women Airforce Service Pilots. The Navy had Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. The Marine Corps had the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. And the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve was called Semper Paratus (“Always Ready”). This was a huge victory for women during this time. Throughout WWII, some 350,000 women served the United States in non-combat roles. These roles were not without risk, though: 432 women gave their lives during the war, and a further 88 were taken as prisoners of war (DeSimone, 2022).

It wasn’t until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, allowing women to serve as full, permanent Service members across the entire military. (The same year, President Truman also issued an executive order integrating the Armed Forces; in addition to desegregating the military, this order also allowed Black women to serve in all branches.) While President Truman’s order was an important step for women, it was still not a complete victory for equal opportunity; women were allowed to comprise only 2% of each branch, and there were limitations on how many women could become officers.

Shortly after these acts and orders became law, U.S. involvement in the Korean War (1950–1953) saw 120,000 women serve in two types of positions: (1) those similar to the positions they served in in the past or (2) in active-duty, non-combat positions, such as military police officers and engineers. The U.S.’ involvement in the Vietnam War (1955–1975) resulted in nearly 11,000 women stationed in Vietnam, 90% of whom were nurses in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. It was during this war that President Lyndon B. Johnson allowed women to be promoted to general and flag ranks, and, by 1972, women were able to command units. And the following year, the Pentagon announced that women could remain in the military even if they were pregnant (DeSimone, 2022).

Following the Korean and Vietnam Wars, women continued to pave their way in the U.S. Armed Forces, such that during the Gulf War (1990-1991), over 40,000 women deployed to combat zones, although they were still unable to serve in direct combat. Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton rescinded the “Risk Rule,” which restricted women from serving in roles that would expose them to risks associated with direct combat (e.g., hostile fire, capture) (DeSimone, 2022). This meant that women could now serve in thousands of new positions, even those that could expose them to these risks (e.g., bomber pilot, fighter pilots) (McGrath, 2001).

From the late 20th century to today, there has been a lot of progress for women in the United States Armed Forces, as well as a lot of firsts. The following is just a partial list:

  • In 1975, Commander Paige Blok became the first woman Navy fighter pilot (Eckstein, 2019).
  • Army Sargent Leigh Ann Hester was the first woman Soldier to be awarded the Silver Star, for bravery during a 2005 enemy ambush on her supply convoy in Iraq (DeSimone, 2022).
  • In 2008, General Ann Dunwoody became the first woman four-star general, which happened to be for the Army (Lopez, 2012).
  • And in 2013, Chief Karen Voorhees was the first woman Aviation Survival Technician to become Chief of the Coast Guard history (Booker, 2021).

In addition to these noteworthy firsts, 2013 was also the year that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the end of the ban on women in combat and that women Service members would be allowed to serve in direct ground combat roles. These changes took effect in 2015; women became eligible for thousands of military jobs as a result. Since then, over 100 women have graduated from the Army’s ranger school (DeSimone, 2022) and 8 have participated in the Navy SEAL officer assessment and selection process (Kime, 2022).

The history of women in the U.S. Armed Forces speaks for itself, but it is worth noting that there are more women in the Forces than ever before. Since 9/11, more than 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and over 9,000 have earned Combat Action Badges. Today, women make up approximately 16% of our Armed Forces (DeSimone, 2022). The increase in women Service members makes it important to recognize not only their effects on the history of the military but also the unique experiences and challenges that women face while serving our country. One way to better understand these experiences is through research; luckily, Military REACH has an arsenal of it on women Service members.

What we see in the research is similar to the history: though women are strong and resilient, they continue to face gendered challenges and have to advocate for themselves. One related and important note is that research is intended to help answer questions or find solutions to problems; therefore, research typically takes a deficits-based approach (Shea, 2021). Please keep this in mind when reading literature on the topic of women Service members.

Across the literature, we have seen:

However, even in the face of these challenges, Servicewomen still have positive things to say about their military experience, including their service attributing positive meaning to their lives (Leslie & Koblinsky, 2017). Military REACH in particular has heard first-hand perspectives of women in the military through the interviews we compiled in the Research-In-Action article, “Perspectives of Service among Women Service Members and Veterans.

Clearly, women are a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud to see the progress women have made and the barriers they have overcome to serve our country! Happy Women’s History Month, Servicewomen – and, most importantly, thank you for your service.

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