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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. From the American Revolution in the late 1700s to the Global War on Terrorism, women have been a part of America’s fight in some capacity. They worked as nurses, cooks, housekeepers, and even water carriers, overcoming decades of obstacles to get to where they are today – serving in more significant numbers and roles worldwide.

“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. 

Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

During the U.S. War for Independence, women supported the fight as seamstresses, cooks, and nurses at camps for soldiers. However, there were some women warriors who disguised themselves as men to voluntarily serve as spies or fight on the frontlines, like Margaret Corbin – the first woman to receive a military pension. She disguised herself as a man and fought alongside her husband in the Battle of Fort Washington. When her husband fell to enemy fire, she kept the fight going, firing the cannon against the British, even after being shot three times. These women warriors suffered the same hardships as men, including inadequate housing and little-to-no pay. 

Civil War (1861-1865)

The Civil War marked the first time in American history that women played a significant role in war. They kept their traditional roles, while inching closer than ever to the frontlines. Historians estimate that nearly 20,000 women served in this war, with about 3,000 as nurses in battlefield hospitals and 1,000 or sodisguised as men to fight in combat. Here, famous female warriors made history like nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton, who drove her medical wagon through enemy fire to tend to injured soldiers. And Dr. Mary Edwards Walker became the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army and is still the only female Medal of Honor recipient in American history. 

World War I (1914-1918)

World War I (WWI) marked a significant time in history for women because they were officially allowed to enlist, but still not allowed to vote or fight in combat. The United States officially entered WWI in 1917 and more than 35,000 American women enlisted to serve in the military, with about 25,000 serving overseas2. Although most women in the military were members of the Army Nurse Corps, others served in new capacities like secretaries, switchboard and radio operators, administrators, and architects. The U.S. Army Signal Corps enlisted women to work as bilingual French-speaking telephone operators, known as the “Hello Girls.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1979, that they were given recognition for their service or veteran status. These brave women warriors inspired change across the nation and helped propel the passage of the 19th Amendment, ensuring women the right to vote. Women in the military were not only changing the way they served, but they were helping all women progress.

World War II (1939-1945)

This war saw more than 16 million Americans step up to serve on the front lines. World War II (WWII) had an unprecedented need for service members, thus, for the first time in history, all branches of the United States military enlisted women in their ranks. About 350,000 American women3 served in uniform during WWII in order to “free a man to fight.” The majority were nurses, but others served in new non-combat roles, such as drivers, mechanics, cryptographers, parachute riggers, and even pilots for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Four Army nurses – 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, 1st Lt. Mary Roberts, 2nd Lt. Elaine Roe, and 2nd Lt. Rita Rourke – became the first women recipients of the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest military decoration for valor in combat. In 1948, President Harry Truman passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act entitling women to veterans benefits and granting them permanent, regular, and reserve status in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. This decision further proved the need and worth of women in the military.

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 s in the Southeast Asian country. 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. Female service members made strides across all service branches, further demonstrating how essential they were in America’s fight. 

The 80s, 90s, and post-9/11

Through the decades that followed, 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. 

However, 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. 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 into 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. 

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 you can #EmpowerWomenVets.

Contact: — Krissty Andaur - Public Relations, kandaur@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.760.6957

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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