Women Trailblazers in Military History

Commemorating Women’s History Month

FY19_Womens_History_Month_Header_2In honor of Women’s History Month, we spotlight some trailblazers in military history – women who dared to question the status quo and demand equal representation, from the Revolutionary War to today. 

As we look back in time, here are just a few of the many women who paved the way to the 2016 policy shift that opened up all combat jobs to women. We see the fruits of their labor today in the modern military, as women continue to serve in every capacity imaginable. For Women’s History Month, which runs through the end of March, that’s something to celebrate.

THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR

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Deborah Sampson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the Revolutionary War, women mostly served as cooks and nurses, or they handled other clerical tasks like mess hall duty and laundry. There are only a handful of women with a documented record of military combat in revolutionary times, and one story stands out. Deborah Sampson dressed as a male and served for 17 months for the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the pseudonym Robert Shirtliff. It was considered an elite unit, featuring soldiers who were specifically chosen for superior size and abilities. She fought valiantly, survived battle wounds, and her gender was not revealed until she fell ill and received medical treatment. She was later given an honorable discharge and avoided being reprimanded by the Continental Army.

THE CIVIL WAR ERA

FY19_WT_Mary_Edwards_Walker

Mary Edwards Walker
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As time went on, more and more women began serving in the military in many different capacities. One woman who stands out during this era was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a surgeon and an abolitionist. She frequently crossed enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and was eventually captured and treated as a spy. She was sent to Richmond, VA, as a prisoner of war and was later released in a prisoner exchange. For her honor and valor, she was the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor. To this date, she is still the only woman to ever receive the award.

WORLD WAR I

FY19_WT_Lenah_Higbee

Lenah Higbee
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Most women in the WWI era served as nurses and support staff. One of the most prominent women trailblazers of this time period was Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee. She was one of the first 20 women to join the newly established U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, called “The Sacred Twenty.” She would go on to become the first woman to receive the Navy Cross. Her legacy would live with two ships named in her honor – the USS Higbee, a destroyer commissioned in 1945; and the USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, a guided missile destroyer currently scheduled to enter the Navy fleet in 2024.

OTHER MILESTONES

Since WWI, women have made steady progress in the field, with representation increasing exponentially into the modern era. Here's a rundown of other female trailblazers and key milestones in military history:

  • 1948: President Harry S. Truman passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, enabling women to serve permanently in the Armed Forces.
  • In the Vietnam War, Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett became the first woman in Naval history to hold command in a combat zone.
  • In 1993, Congress authorized women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships. Martha McSally was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, in an A-10 Thunderbolt II on a mission in Iraq.
  • In 2004, Col. Linda McTague was the first woman to command a squadron in the Air Force.
  • In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a member of the National Guard, earned a Silver Star for her service in Iraq.
  • Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody was the first woman to achieve four-star officer rank in 2008.
  • In 2011, 1st Lt. Ashley White was the first female officer to deploy on a submarine.
  • Navy Admiral Michelle J. Howard became the first African-American woman to achieve four stars in 2014.
  • In 2019, the first-ever all-female flyover team from Naval Air Station Oceana was featured on the TODAY show.

Thanks to all the women in the military – throughout history to today – for their sacrifice and service to our country.

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