In Celebration of Military Women: A Brief History

First group of Marine Corps women officer candidates at Mount Holyoke

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Californians recognize women who served in the military. The third week of March is Women’s Military History Week as we focus on women who have been vital to every successful military campaign throughout history and their contributions and sacrifices should not be mere footnotes of our history.

This week is dedicated to the women who have sacrificed, and who continue to serve and sacrifice, in the nation’s defense. Thank you for your service.

The 1700 and 1800’s: Women in War

Women who bravely joined the military had to disguise themselves as men and enlist under aliases.

  • Revolutionary War: Mary Corbin bravely served in battle alongside her husband. In 1779 she became the first woman to be awarded by Congress disability pension for injuries sustained during her service during the Revolutionary War
  • Civil War: In 1782 Deborah Sampson Gannett enlisted under the name of her deceased brother. She served for three years and was wounded twice. She cut a musket ball out of her own thigh to avoid medics discovering she was a woman. She was given an honorable discharge by George Washington and years later in 1804 she was awarded a pension for her service.
  • Mexican War: In 1847, Elizabeth C. Newcume battled Native Americans in Dodge City. Ten months later, she was discharged when her gender was discovered. In July 1848, Congress paid her the land and money she was owed for her service.
  • Indian War: Cathay Williams, the only woman to serve in the U.S. Army as a Buffalo Soldier, enlisted under the name of William Cathay on November 15, 1866. She served until her gender was discovered and was the only documented black woman known to have served in the Army during the period when women were prohibited from enlisting.

The World Wars

  • World War I: The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps allowed women to enlist. More than 12,000 enlisted and about 400 died during the war. Women worked for the Red Cross and the United Service Organizations and filled the needs in factory, office, transportation and other jobs vacated by men who were off at war.
  • World War II: 350,000 women served in the military. More than 60,000 women served as Army nurses and over 14,000 served as Navy nurses. 150,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps with duty in England, France, Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines.
    In 1943, the Air Force created Women Air Force Service Pilots whose pilots flew stateside while male pilots served overseas. American aviator Jacqueline Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Distinguished Service Medal for her service.

Women’s Role in War Changes in Late 20th Century

  • Gulf War: Over 40,000 women served in the 1991 Gulf War and engaged with enemy forces on an unprecedented level. Due to modern weapons of warfare, such as scud missiles and roadside bombs, front lines were blurred and every soldier was at risk and ostensibly serving in combat.
    U.S.S. Acadia shipped out to the Persian Gulf with 360 women out of a crew of 1,260. The Gulf War marks the first time American men and women shipped out together in wartime conditions and served in integrated units within a warzone.
  • Iraq War: Leigh Ann Hester became the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor in close–quarters combat. Serving in Iraq in 2005, Hester led her team in a 25-minute firefight. She used hand grenades and an M203 grenade launcher while maneuvering her team to cut off the enemy.
    In 2008, Monica Lin Brown also received the Silver Star. After a roadside bomb was detonated in Afghanistan, Brown protected wounded soldiers with her own body and ran through gunfire to save their lives.

Women in the U.S. Military Today

As of 2012, women make up 14 percent of the U.S. military. More than 165,000 women are enlisted and active in the armed services with over 35,000 additional women serving as officers.

Women’s participation during World War II demonstrated that women were a valuable source of high-quality personnel that could perform skilled labor in the military. The role of women in the military has continued to expand and now officially can serve in combat.

So as you celebrate Women’s History Month, take the opportunity to honor women in a wide-range of occupations and accomplishments. I would be remiss if I did not mention that Swords to Plowshares has many examples of women of character, courage and commitment, who have made the organization what it is today.

Feature image from