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The Progress of Women Warriors

Women in the military throughout the years

For over 200 years, women have served in the military, but their long history of service and sacrifice has often gone underappreciated.

“So many women bravely pushed boundaries to allow this generation to serve to their fullest capacity,” said Jennifer Silva, chief program officer at Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). “When I served in the military, not all roles were open to women, but now we are contributing in ways we never did before. Women with a desire to serve are real assets to the armed forces and their communities.”

Let’s look back at some of America’s major wars and how women’s roles in the military evolved. 

Korean and Vietnam Wars (1950-1975)

During the Korean War, 120,000 women3 served in active-duty positions, including new roles as military police officers and engineers. The nearly 20-year war in Vietnam followed with about 11,000 women3 serving in the Southeast Asian country.

“When I joined in 1973, women were still a separate branch – Women’s Auxiliary for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and Officer training was separate, too; Women’s Officer School (WOS),” said Navy veteran Frances Coulter. “My class was the last of WOS.”

During Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson opened promotions for women to generals and flag ranks. He also allowed women in the military to finally command units that included men.

Now, women like Frances could take on new roles they never thought were possible. But they still faced challenges.

“I went to Department of Defense Race Relations Institute at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida in preparation to become a race relations specialist, assisting commands create Equal Opportunity/Race Relations plans. It was here I learned the hardest lesson about being a woman in the Navy,” said Frances.

“Long story short, I was married and pregnant.  The rules had just changed allowing women officers to remain on active duty while pregnant. Since there was no maternity uniform at the time, I arrived at my internship in civilian clothes. When questioned, I explained my marriage to a now-former enlisted man. The commanding officer immediately dismissed me from the program, effectively barring me from operating as an EEO/Race Relations specialist, and he said to me, ‘Any ensign who is married to a former enlisted man and who is now pregnant, is an embarrassment to this command and shall not be tolerated.’ Even after all these years, I still remember the exact quote.”

After she separated from the military, Frances tried to join a reserve unit near home. However, the only available option was a unit attached to a ship in Fall River, Massachusetts. At the time, women weren’t allowed on ships. Due to her past experiences, Frances decided not to push the envelope again and fight for what she wanted and knew was right. So, she never entered the reserves.

1980s and 90s

Through the decades that followed the wars, women continued to break down gender barriers and overcome the many challenges they faced for equality. There were many “firsts” for women in the military, like the first woman to command U.S. trips in combat and the first woman to command a U.S. Navy vessel. 

Global War on Terror (Post-9/11)

Sept. 11, 2001, marked another pivotal change for women in the military. The country endured one of the largest terrorist attacks on American soil, which launched the longest war in U.S. history. In 2005, Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the first Silver Star since WWII for her brave actions during an enemy ambush on her supply convoy in Iraq. She was the first woman in U.S. military history to receive the honor for direct combat action.

The evolution of womwn warriors.
Jessica Coulter represents the evolution of women warriors through the decades. She is a post-9/11 Air Force veteran and her mother served in the military during the Vietnam era.

However, some women, like Air Force veteran Jessica Coulter, still encountered unique challenges.

“I was already in [the Air Force] when 9/11 happened, newly married to an Air Force member, and then I found out I was two months pregnant with my first child and was nondeployable,” said Jessica. “I was still active duty, but people were getting deployed left and right, the bases were getting bomb threats, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Jessica was pregnant again in 2003, during the conflicts in Afghanistan. Again, she was nondeployable, and her male counterparts took note.

“They were talking trash, you know, about me being pregnant. I was not trying to get pregnant to avoid deployment, yet many males thought so,” said Jessica. “But even when I did deploy, like in 2000 to Saudi Arabia, there were struggles there, too. I was the only woman there, but I was very limited on what I was allowed to do. I couldn’t even drive because if they saw a female driver over there, we’d be harassed.”

At the time, women were restricted from participating in combat roles, even though Jessica knew of many who found themselves in combat post-9/11.

By 2016, with the help of then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the ban on women in combat was lifted, and all military occupations and positions opened without exception.

This groundbreaking decision not only expands roles for women in the military but opens opportunities for women to advance to the highest ranks. Throughout history, women warriors have proven themselves on and off the battlefield. It is through their resiliency that they have been able to overcome countless obstacles. As the progression of women in combat roles continues, so does the need to empower and amplify their voices. 

“While it has changed quite a bit since I was in, I still suspect that to be fully accepted, a woman will have to work twice as hard and do her job twice as well. I hope that I am wrong,” said Frances.

WWP research found that women warriors experience certain challenges at higher rates than their male counterparts to this day. In particular, the challenge of not being seen as a veteran is still being felt by women veterans across the country. To better understand these issues and advocate for women veterans, who make up about 10% of the overall veteran population, WWP introduced the Women Warriors Initiative. 

Learn more about how WWP is supporting Women Warriors

Contact: Kaitlyn McCue, Public Relations,, 904.870.1964

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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