Did you know that March is Women’s History Month? It started back in March of 1981 with “Women’s History Week”. One week of celebration wasn’t enough, though, and in 1987, Congress officially designated March as Women’s History Month.
Moreover, International Women’s Day, which celebrates the strength and perseverance of all women from every corner of the globe, is today, March 8! What better day to commemorate all the great women that have served our country than today?! Join us as we take a look back at some of America’s greatest female servicemembers.
For most of our country’s history, women served the military in an extremely limited capacity, if they served at all. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, women only served in the army as support, working as nurses, surgeons, spies, mechanics, and cooks. Women could volunteer to help the military during times of war, but until 1901, there were no official members of the military, combat or otherwise. Then in 1901, the Army Nurse Corps was introduced, followed shortly after by the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. However, women who wanted to fight for their country would pose as men in order to enlist.
Women wouldn’t become permanent members of the military until 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed them to serve in the military as permanent, full-time members. Until then, women could only serve during wartime. It took nearly 30 more years for women to be accepted into any of the U.S. service academies; in 1976, West Point, The Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy all welcomed women for the first time.
Another turning point came in 1993, when women were finally permitted to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships. However, the Department of Defense still excluded them from serving in units “whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground”. This would remain the norm until 2013, when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the military’s combat exclusion policy would be rescinded. The door was opened further for women when former Defense Secretary Ash Carter officially opened all combat jobs to women in 2016. In a statement that announced the change, Carter said “there will be no exceptions”.
Today, women make up nearly 15% of the entire active duty population.
Throughout history, the only thing holding women back in the Service has been the rules put in place to prohibit their involvement. Some of our greatest female servicemembers include:
- Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man, Robert Shirtliffe, and enlisted in the U.S Army in 1778. Sampson served under George Washington until 1781. An injury led to the discovery of her true identity as a woman and she was honorably discharged from the service. Deborah is believed to be the first woman to serve in combat for the United States.
- Mary E. Walker, the first and ONLY female recipient of the Medal of Honor in U.S. Military history. Dr. Walker served as assistant surgeon to the Union forces during the Civil War. Walker also worked as a spy for the Union, a double-life that would lead to her capture by Confederates in Chattanooga.
- Loretta Walsh, the first American active-duty Navy woman, the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy, and the first woman allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces as anything other than a nurse. Walsh enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1917 and became the first female U.S. Navy petty officer that same year.
- Lt. Col. Christine Mau, who became the first female F-35 fighter jet pilot in 2015. Mau was also a member of the first all-female combat sortie in 2011. When asked about her achievements, Mau said, “Flying is a great equalizer. The plane doesn’t know or care about your gender as a pilot, nor do the ground troops who need your support. You just have to perform.”
- Sgt. Sherri Gallagher, who became the first and only woman to be named Army Soldier of the Year when she was awarded the title in 2010. Gallagher proved her skills as one of the country’s top long-range rifle shooters by besting her peers (both male and female) in events such as hand-to-hand combat, urban maneuvers, detainee operations, casualty evaluation, weapons familiarization, and night firing. Gallagher later went on to join the Golden Knights, the elite U.S. Army Parachute Team.
- Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman to be awarded the Silver Star (3rd-highest award exclusively for valor in combat) for combat action. When her squad was ambushed by over two dozen Iraqi insurgents, Hester fought valiantly and thwarted the attack, even walking directly into the line of fire to battle enemies at close range. Shortly after Hester received her Silver Star, Spc. Monica Lin Brown would become the second woman awarded this prestigious honor for her efforts in Afghanistan.
- Col. Jill W. Chambers, Ret. is widely considered to be the first person to develop a successful PTSD program for soldiers. Watch as she explains her program in the video below.