Women’s History Month

This year’s theme, Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment, honors the extraordinary and often unrecognized determination and tenacity of women. Against social convention and often legal restraints, women have created a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to follow. They have demonstrated their character, courage and commitment as mothers, educators, institution builders, business owners, relief workers, religious leaders, CEOs, and, labor, political and community leaders. Their lives and their work inspire girls and women to achieve their full potential and encourage boys and men to respect the diversity and depth of women’s experience.

When we take a look at the theme for 2014, we can without a doubt say that our Women in Military; are certainly Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.

Women have been a part of the war effort since the Revolutionary War, but in the early days of our nation they had to cloak themselves in disguise to serve alongside men. When they were accepted into the military, women were given auxiliary roles.

The First Female U.S. Soldiers

During the Revolutionary, Civil and Mexican Wars, a small number of women were involved in combat, but they had to disguise themselves as men and enlist under aliases.  In 1776, Margaret Corbin fought with her husband and 600 American soldiers during the Revolutionary War defending Fort Washington.  In 1779, Mrs. Corbin was awarded a disability pension by Congress. She was the first woman to serve and she was also the first to receive a pension for her service.

Deborah Sampson Gannett, from Plymouth, Massachusetts, also served and in 1782 she enlisted under the name of her deceased brother, Robert Shurtliff. For three years, Sampson served in the Continental Army and was wounded twice.  To avoid detection, she cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so they would not find out she was a woman. At the end of the hostilities, her secret was discovered.  She was given an honorable discharge by George Washington. Years later, in 1804, Sampson was awarded a pension for her service.

In the Mexican War, Elizabeth C. Newcume dressed in male attire and joined the military at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1847, she 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.

Private Cathay Williams was the only woman to serve in the U.S. Army as a Buffalo Soldier. On November 15, 1866, she enlisted in the Army as a man. Williams reversed her name William Cathay and lived as a male soldier.  She served until she was found out due to the last of many illnesses she had suffered while serving. She is the only documented black woman known to have served in the Army during these times when enlisting women was prohibited.

U.S. Women in the World Wars

During 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 also worked for the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations.  They also worked in factory, office, transportation and other jobs vacated by men who were off at war. By the end of World War I, women made up 24 percent of aviation plant workers.

In World War II, a total of 350,000 women served in the U.S. military. More than 60,000 women served as Army nurses and over 14,000 served as Navy nurses.  Also in 1942, the Army created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). These women served overseas in North Africa. A year later, the WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), in which more than 150,000 women served. For the rest of the War, WACs were present in England, France, Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines.

Also in 1943, the Air Force created Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). WASPs were civilians who flew stateside while male pilots served overseas. American aviator Jacqueline Cochran was instrumental in the creation of WASP. She wrote letters to various military leaders, suggesting that women pilots fly non-combat missions. She became the WASP director. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Distinguished Service Medal.

Women’s participation during World War II was a major turning point in the relationship of women to the military. As the war escalated, it became clear that women were a valuable source of high-quality personnel who could meet the skilled labor needed to fight the war abroad and to keep the things moving at home.

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

Women continued to break new ground in the U.S. military after World War II. Part of the reason for this was necessity. The way wars were fought changed over the 20th century. Due to modern weapons of warfare, such as scud missiles and roadside bombs, front lines were blurred and every soldier was at risk. Over 40,000 women served in the 1991 Gulf War and engaged with enemy forces on an unprecedented level. On September 5, 1990, the U.S.S. Acadia left San Diego for the Persian Gulf. Of the 1,260 on board, 360 were women. It was the first time American men and women shipped out together in wartime conditions. The 1991 Gulf War was also the first war where women served with men in integrated units within a warzone.

In 2005, Leigh Ann Hester became the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor in close–quarters combat. Serving in Iraq, 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.

So as we celebrate Women’s History Month, this year’s theme presents the opportunity to honor women in a wide-range of occupations and accomplishments. . I would be remiss if I did not mention that FEW has many examples of women of character, courage and commitment, those serving currently and in the past, who have made the organization what it is today.  I wish a special thank you to all of you for leading the way.  We stand upon your shoulders!

Special Assistant for
Federal Women’s Program



National Women’s History Project, www.nwhp.org