As we approach our nation’s annual observance called Memorial Day, it’s worth noting that not just men’s sacrifices should be honored. According to the Veterans’ Administration, there are currently more than 2 million women veterans, as well as more than 214,000 women on active duty around the world. Let’s review some history, shall we?
According to VA historians, the first American woman to serve our nation was Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Continental Army for some 17 months. Along with Sampson, hundreds of women supported the American cause by acting unofficially as cooks and nurses during the American Revolution; women were also critical in obtaining much needed supplies and relaying messages and other information.
In the Civil War, women set up military hospitals and rounded up medical supplies; they provided nursing care as well, which opened up new opportunities for women. Dr. Mary E. Walker became the first (and so far only) female Medal of Honor recipient through her service in that war; other women, such as Clara Barton, later transferred their Civil War experiences to the founding of organizations such as the American Red Cross or to the establishment of formal nursing programs.
Congress recognized the value of women in war by establishing the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, and for much of the 20th century, this remained the major route for military service, although the U.S. Navy permitted women to join, as auxiliary members, during World War I; those women were used primarily in support roles as clerks. More than 400 women died while being deployed overseas during WWI. Female military members, though, did not earn the same benefits as male service members, and were limited in promotions. Once the war ended, women were released from the military.
Despite these roadblocks, thousands of women volunteered to serve our nation in World War II as nurses, clerks, drivers, and pilots. 88 American female servicemembers were taken prisoners of war during that war, and dozens more died ferrying planes from factory to bases or by enemy attacks. Once again, though, despite their sacrifices, female veterans were denied access to most of the benefits provided to men by the G.I. Bill, and again were pushed out of the military once the war ended. But women veterans had gained powerful allies during the war, and they lobbied Congress for change. In 1948, women were permitted to enter the military even in peacetime, and start building careers. This came none too soon: the Korean War began in 1950, and women were needed to fill support roles. However, all of the services were still uncomfortable with offering women command positions; the first woman to have a command position in a combat zone was Navy Commander Elizabeth Barrett, who served in Vietnam, but she was a rare exception.
Getting pressure from the women’s movement in the early 1970s, Congressional leaders forced the military establishment to re-examine its attitude toward women in combat, and this eventually led to significant changes in training, promotion, and command opportunities. By the late 1970s, women could be trained in nearly all of the same fields as men, as well as gaining admittance to the military academies at Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs. Women pilots were trained in combat, and actually engaged in combat in the Bosnian wars of the late 1990s. Dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 demanded leadership, and women quickly moved into command positions in the field.
In recognition of this change, in 2013, the U.S. military officially reversed its policy of keeping women out of combat; it opened all military specialties to women, and by 2017, both the Army and the Marines had female infantry officers.
So as we think about Memorial Day (and in November, Veterans’ Day), we have to erase from our minds the traditional image of a veteran as being a man, and recognize the sacrifices of both men and women in defending American ideas and freedoms.