Original publish date: March 8, 2018

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.

Throughout American history, women have played pivotal roles in defending our nation, often in the face of significant challenges and barriers. Despite being disenfranchised and denied equal rights for much of our nation’s history, women have always volunteered to serve in their nation’s defense, demonstrating their unwavering dedication and patriotism. Join us as we highlight 17 heroic women and their roles in U.S. military history:

During the American Revolutionary War, women’s contributions were multifaceted. Many women tended to the domestic side of army organization, washing, cooking, mending clothes, and providing medical help when necessary — but others flung themselves into the vortex of battle. Such was the case of Mary Ludwig Hays, better known as Molly Pitcher, who earned fame at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Hays would bring soldiers water from a local well to quench their thirst on hot and humid days, but when her husband William Hays was wounded in action, she took over his position, firing at the oncoming British.

In a similar vein, Deborah Sampson went beyond societal norms by disguising herself as a man to fight on the front lines. Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army under the alias “Robert Shurtliff” and served for three years before her true identity was discovered. In the spring of 1782, she was wounded in her thigh and forehead, but to prevent her identity from being revealed, she permitted physicians to treat her head wound and then slipped out of the field hospital unnoticed, where she extracted one of the bullets from her thigh with a penknife and sewing needle. After the Treaty of Paris, she was given an honorable discharge from the army by Henry Knox. Like other Veterans of the Continental Army, she was continually petitioning the state and federal government for her service pension and by the time she died in 1827, she was collecting minimal pensions for her service from Massachusetts and the federal government.

A lesser-known story is that of New York teenager Sybil Ludington, who was the female equivalent of Paul Revere, though she rode twice as far as Revere and in a driving rainstorm in April of 1777. Her ride took her through Putnam and Dutchess Counties, New York where she roused local militia to fight a British force that had attacked nearby Danbury, Connecticut.

During the Civil War, countless women volunteered as spies, scouts, and aides, providing invaluable support to both Union and Confederate forces. And while both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women, there are many accounts of women who lived in camp, suffered in prisons, bore arms, and died for their respective causes.

Because many of them were disguised as men, it is impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. Conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War range between 400 and 750 whereas others estimate counts as high as several thousand.

Frances Clayton disguised herself as "Frances Clalin" to fight in the Civil War. (Library of Congress)
Frances Clayton disguised herself as Frances Clalin to fight in the Civil War Library of Congress

For the most part, women were recognized after they had received serious wounds or died. Mary Galloway was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Antietam, and Clara Barton, who went on to found the Red Cross, discovered Mary’s true identity while treating her.

Some soldiers were revealed as women after getting captured. Frances Hook was just 14 years old when her brother announced that he was going to enlist in the Union Army. Since her brother was her only living relative, and she did not want to be left alone, Frances decided to disguise herself as a man and follow him to war. Frances served for two years — even after her brother was killed in battle — under the alias’s Frank Miller and Frank Hernderson before her imprisonment in the summer of 1863. After a desperate attempt to escape an Atlanta prison, she was shot and carried to the prison hospital, where the doctor discovered her gender.

The Civil War also gave rise to the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, Dr. Mary Walker. As a surgeon, women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, and spy, Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War. She was presented with a Medal of Honor in January 1866, which she wore every day for the rest of her life.

World War I saw the formal entry of American women into military service. Several hundred women, known as the “Hello Girls,” served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps as bilingual telephone operators in France. Despite their critical role in communication and support, these women were initially denied official recognition as military personnel and the benefits that came with it. However, their contributions paved the way for future generations of women in the military.

World War II marked a turning point for women in the military, as over 500,000 women volunteered to serve in various capacities within the armed forces. These women filled critical roles in logistics, transportation, maintenance, and administration – and for the first time in history, all branches of the military enlisted women in their ranks.

Women like Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley led the way as the first African American woman to command a battalion in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), while others, like Lt. Col. Oveta Culp Hobby, served as the director of the Women’s Army Corps and later became the first Secretary of the newly created U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In total, nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform during World War II.

In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, officially allowing women to serve as full, permanent members of all branches of the Armed Forces; however, this was not a guarantee of equal opportunity.

The act actually restricted the number of women who could serve to only 2% of each branch, and also limited how many women could become officers. But regardless of the obstacles that remained in female servicemembers’ paths, women continued to serve in various roles.

Nurses like Lt. Diane Carlson Evans played a crucial role in providing medical care to wounded soldiers on the front lines, often facing danger and hardship alongside their male counterparts. A registered nurse in civilian life, Marion Birkhimer joined the Navy in 1957, starting a 27-year career that included duty aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose where she would deal with casualties from action on the mainland, including the Tet Offensive.

In more recent conflicts, including the Gulf War and those in Iraq and Afghanistan, women continued to serve in a wider range of roles, marking a lot of “firsts” for women in the military: the first woman to become a Navy fighter pilot; the first female four-star general in the Army; and the first female rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard, among others.

Women like Maj. Marie Rossi and Capt. Kimberly Hampton flew combat missions and demonstrated exceptional skill and courage in the face of adversity. Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the first Silver Star to a female soldier since World War II, in recognition of her brave actions during an enemy ambush on her supply convoy in Iraq in 2005. She is also the first woman to ever receive the Silver Star for direct combat action.

More than 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, more than 9,000 have earned Combat Action Badges and today, women make up 16% of our nation’s Armed Forces, serving in every branch of the U.S. military.

On this International Women’s Day and throughout Women’s History Month, let us honor the invaluable contributions and unwavering dedication of the women who have served and continue to serve in our nation’s military. Their sacrifices and achievements deserve recognition and appreciation, and it’s essential to celebrate their accomplishments in a positive and respectful manner.

Use of DoD imagery does not constitute or imply DoD endorsement. Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Justin Marty. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Megan Roundpoint communicates through a radio during an adversary force exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Jan. 31, 2024. VIRIN: 240131-M-GV442-1533M.JPG

More on Women in the Military from SpouseLink:

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This