The History of Women in the Military

From the American Revolution and the Civil War to WWII and Vietnam- Americans of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and genders served in some capacity.

From the washerwomen of the Revolutionary War to the WAVES and WASPs of WWII and finally to the newest generation of military women serving on the front lines of combat, the history of women in the military is one filled with bravery and heroics worthy of any great war story. The history of women in the military is a great reminder of how far women have come in standing and stature in what is widely considered the greatest and most formidable armed services the world has ever known.

Revolutionary War – The Washer Woman

In today’s comfortable society, it’s hard to imagine that 243 years ago when a man went to war, often his entire family went with him. Yet what else were they to do? The men who joined the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War were not wealthy. They were farmers, blacksmiths, tradesmen, hunters and fishermen. Today we would call them blue-collar workers.

Women did not have the luxury of staying home and waiting for the war hero to return. Their husbands’ commitment to the fight for freedom often meant that the entire source of income for their family went with them. This was the case of the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington who often lamented that he had no choice but to allow the women in the encampments for fear of losing the husbands they followed. In other words, if there were no women, there would be no Continental Army.

So what did these women (the ones who were allowed to stay) do for the young and beleaguered army? Most of them became washerwomen, following the army from camp to camp and setting up their stations well behind enemy lines. They washed, mended, and saw to the comforts of the young soldiers in their husbands’ units. Some of them also assisted with the cooking or took care of the sick, yet for the most part, all accounts of women in the service of the regiment were in charge of the laundry. This would not always be the case though and every war since the Revolutionary War would see women playing much larger and more important roles each time our nation was called to defend itself.

The Civil War – Fighting for Freedom

In a war where the very fabric of our nation was on the verge of being torn apart, it was not just men who put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom. Women too had made it a personal choice and took up sides both politically and in arms against each other. Women were not allowed to serve in any capacity in the military on either side, yet they did so anyway, choosing to take on the persona of men and enlisting in both the Union and Confederate armies. They changed everything about themselves to join the war, from their names to the way they dressed, with many of them going completely undetected even after death.

It is estimated that anywhere from 450-700 women fought as soldiers. They served in many capacities, from infantrymen and officers on the front lines to spies working for the enemy. While some died in battle, others were wounded and sent to hospitals where they could not disguise themselves any longer. It’s not known exactly what happened to them once their secret was discovered but in some extreme cases, the women were subjected to imprisonment or even institutionalized in hospitals. It would be many more years before another war and another generation of women would stand up to answer their nation’s call. Though this time, their role was far more important and more defined than ever.

The Greatest Generation – The WASP & WAVES

The World Wars saw generations of young men off to war. Still, to this day there has never been such a call to patriotism and service as when our country went to war in defense of the Allied nations.

Women felt this call deeply as well. On the home front, women took up the positions that men abandoned. Much like the washerwomen of the Revolutionary War, these women and their families could not survive without the income from their husbands, fathers and brothers. Nor could the great war machine that America would need to become survive. Depictions of Rosie the Riveter define this movement of American women serving their nation. Yet the call to serve at home wasn’t felt by all. Women wanted to be active in other capacities as well.

Initially, women were only allowed to join the services as support staff such as nurses and administrators. This was during the last two years of WWI and it was only allowed during times of war. It wasn’t until WWII that their roles were expanded and women served in many capacities previously filled by men such as mechanics, pilots and other non-combat roles.

WWII saw the creation of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) for the Navy and WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots), a unit designed to help free up male pilots for combat roles. These women (other than WAVES – which was considered a Navy Reserves component) were not considered an active part of the United States military, however. It would not be until 1948 and the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act that women would be granted a permanent role alongside men in all branches of the United States military. While this was a monumental step forward for women in the armed services, they were still regulated to non-combat and support roles only. It would take more generations and more conflicts for women to move beyond this capacity.

The Modern U.S. Military – Women Take Charge

From the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to the Persian Gulf War and the Global War on Terror, the role of women in the Armed Services has been slowly and steadily expanding. In 1976 women were admitted for the first time into U.S. Military, Naval and Air Force Academies. A few years later women would be allowed to serve on Navy and Marine non-combat ships.

The Gulf Wars, including both wars in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, saw women take on more combat centred roles. Women were authorized to fly combat missions and serve on combat ships in 1991 and 1993. Some 41,000 women were estimated to have been deployed to a combat zone during the Persian Gulf War. By the mid-2000’s they were serving in more and more combat and direct action related capacities both on the battlefield and in the upper ranks of the military echelon. Still, it would not be until 2015 and the announcement from then Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter that women could serve in every combat position available, that the doors to the military would be flung wide open to women.

While women had been fighting in combat areas for years before this decision was made, they were not allowed to serve in combat roles that had been traditionally held for men. This included Special Forces groups like the 75th Ranger Regiment and the U.S. Navy Seals. Now that the restrictions were removed, these highly trained and professional units were prepared to make way for the newest members of their elite units. Though the numbers are few, as many women have not been able to pass the strict selection process, some are now serving in their ranks. This does not come without controversy, however, as many are concerned that the standards are either lowered or compromised for political purpose.

But controversy does not stop progress. Women continue to push forward for equality in all aspects of their military service with much success. Just recently Col. Lorna M. Mahlock was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, becoming the first female (and also the first African American female) Marine to achieve the rank. While she is not alone in the small group of women to reach such a high degree of command within the military, she is evidence that a career path for women in the Armed Forces continues to break boundaries and achieve dreams.

No longer are women regulated to secondary or support roles only. If they choose to and have the mental and physical capabilities necessary for the rigorous demands of a military service career, the barriers stopping them are primarily gone. As the United States continues to navigate a world full of tension and conflict, the women who answer the call of their nation will continue to make remarkable and lasting contributions and will set the example for the generations who follow.

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