Women’s History Month: Celebrating America’s Fighting Women

American Revolution, 1775-1783

Because our first war was fought close to home, thousands of colonial women joined their husbands to help with cooking, mending and nursing. Some women risked their lives as couriers or spies, and some amazing patriot women stood with their men facing the enemy. 

When a combined British and Hessian force attacked Fort Washington in 1776, Margaret Corbin hauled powder and shot to keep her husband’s cannon firing. When he was killed, she continued to load and fire until she was wounded. When Congress awarded her a pension in July 1779,   Ms. Corbin became the first officially recognized servicewoman in the army of the United States.

As soon as the war began, Deborah Sampson cut off her hair, dressed as a man and served as an infantry scout. When she was wounded in battle, a field surgeon discovered her secret. Although she was sent home from the front, Congress recognized her service posthumously by granting her husband a widow’s pension.

Civil War, 1861-1865

During the war between the states, thousands of northern and southern women served as battlefield nurses, and over 400 disguised themselves as men to carry arms in battle.

This was our first mechanized war. The scale of dead and wounded, on both sides, was so overwhelming that field nursing took on a greater importance than in any previous conflict. 

Dorothea Dix was the US Army superintendent of nurses, the first woman appointed to a high federal office. Clara Barton risked her life throughout the war to care for soldiers on the battlefield. She later founded the American Red Cross, serving as its president for more than two decades. 

Dr. Mary Walker worked tirelessly as an assistant field surgeon until she was captured and imprisoned as a spy. In recognition of her heroism at Bull Run, President Andrew Johnson made her the first and only woman in American history to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Spanish American War, 1898-1901

Our first foreign war, combined with an epidemic of typhoid fever, prompted the Army to call for a permanent auxiliary of nurses who were trained for battle wounds and prepared for military life. 

While serving as assistant Surgeon General, Dr. Anita McGee was in charge of selecting nurses who were capable of military service. Dr. McGee wrote the bill which outlined the need for nurses in the Army Reorganization Act of 1901, making her the founder of the Army Nurse Corps.

World War I, 1917-1918

More than 35,000 women joined the fight in World War I, serving in Europe as nurses, secretaries and telephone operators. At home, thousands went to work manufacturing war supplies, and thousands more joined service organizations, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. 

When a global pandemic in 1918 made service even more dangerous, American women continued to work until long after the shooting stopped. Their sacrifice solidified public support for the 19th Amendment, passed in June 1919, which guaranteed American women the right to vote.

World War II, 1939-1945

With America’s young men serving on every continent and fighting on land, sea and in the air, over 350,000 American women answered the call to support them, filling hundreds of wartime specialties, rigging parachutes, coding messages, driving vehicles and of course, nursing. 

Over 1,000 American women ferried warplanes to the front as service pilots, and thousands more had a hand in the overwhelming factory output that ultimately won the war. Women were still not assigned to combat roles, but 545 lost their lives in accidents, and 16 were killed by enemy fire.

World War II had a profound effect on the roles of American women in public life. Along with Rosie the Riveter, American women took on formerly male roles throughout the economy and across the home front, as truck drivers, welders, machinists and streetcar conductors. 

Full Partners in Service, 1945-1954

In the years immediately after World War II, the women of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard were recognized as regular members of the services, with the same code of conduct and pay grades as men. Still, women were excluded from many roles, especially ground combat.

During the Korean Conflict of 1950-1953, the threat of war with China was considered so dangerous that few women were allowed on the Korean peninsula. The exceptions were Army nurses, memorialized in the film and television depiction of M*A*S*H units.

During the Vietnam War, more than 11,000 American women served as Army or Navy medical staff and in military roles such as air traffic control, intelligence and supply. Over 90% of these women were volunteers. Along with women in the military, thousands more went to Vietnam to support the Red Cross, USO, Catholic Relief and other service organizations.

In the 1960’s, firsts for women began to accelerate. President Johnson authorized service by WACs in the National Guard, and equalized promotion and retirement benefits for all officers. 

In 1968, Sergeant Yizetta Nelson became the first woman promoted to Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank, and by 1969, the Army War College began to graduate women. 

In 1970, Elizabeth Hoisington and Anna Mae Hays became the first women to achieve the rank of brigadier general. In 1976, female cadets were admitted for the first time to West Point and all women in the military were required for the first time to receive standard weapons training.

The 1980’s brought more firsts: Marcella Hayes became the first black female Army pilot. In Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury, more than 100 women were deployed in the battle area, and women pilots flew helicopters in combat for the first time. During Operation Just Cause in Panama, Captain Linda Bray became the first woman to command US troops in combat.

Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11 to the Present

In 2005 Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman in US history to be awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in combat. In 2007, Stephanie Dawson became the first female brigade commander, and in 2008, General Anne Dunwoody became the first female four-star general.  

In 2013, the United States ended the ground combat exclusion for women. Service opportunities for women were expanded again in 2014, to include hundreds of operational specialties.

In 2015, Captain Kristen Geist became the first woman to graduate from Ranger school, adding women to America’s elite special forces. Today, all military occupations and ranks are available to American women who are inspired to serve.