Heroines in Arms: Women of the American Military

In January 2016, the Department of Defense announced that for the first time in U.S. history, women could fight in combat missions and serve on special operations teams such as the Navy SEALS, Air Force Pararescue, and the Army Rangers. This historic announcement signaled a change for women in the U.S. military who had often served silently and without recompense.

Although this decision was crucial for the equality of female service members, it is important to note that women have been serving in the U.S. military for hundreds of years.

As early as the Revolutionary War, women have unofficially served in the United States military as cooks, launders, maids, and spies. During this time, women had also disguised themselves as men to fight on the front lines of battle. Although many women died or were injured through war, civilian women continued to impersonate men in the War of 1812, the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Spanish-American War (1898), and World War I (1914-1918).

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Only in the last two years of World War I did women start gaining recognition for their service, when the Department of Defense allowed women to enlist stateside in the U.S. military.

At that time, 33,000 women enlisted into the military as nurses, recruiters, salespeople, translators, radio operators, and more.

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 7.53.57 AM.pngAs women’s interest in the military grew, legislation developed to allow women to serve in auxiliary reserves. From 1943-1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the creation of the WAACs, WAVEs, and WASPs, which served as the women’s auxiliary corps for the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force. Just four years later, Congress created the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which gave women permanent status in the United States military and entitled them to full military authority and veterans benefits. Through the creation of these programs, women’s involvement in the military grew with more than 400,000 women serving at home and abroad as mechanics, ambulance drives, pilots, administrators, nurses, and more.

With the draft ending during the Vietnam War, a total of 7,000 women volunteered to serve the in the United States military. During this time, equal opportunities sprung up for women in the military, and history was made when women were admitted to the service academies. In 1976, The Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis enrolled 357 women to be trained in military science. With more and more women entering careers in the military, Congress disbanded the WACs in favor of truly integrating the military.

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 7.55.03 AM.pngAfter the Vietnam War, women in the military were sent around the globe in co-gender crews that responded to regional conflicts, natural disaster, and humanitarian crises. During this time, many women found themselves in active combat zones, which resulted in the 1988 “Risk Rule,” which found that women could not be placed in areas that were considered to be of “high risk.” Despite this ruling, two years later more than 24,000 women were serving in the Persian Gulf War and many of these women were being deployed to hostile zones. Understanding that it was best for all members of the team to be well equipped and prepared for combat zones, in 1994 Congress overturned the “Risk Rule,” making it legal for women to entire hostile combat zones as long as they didn’t engage in direct combat.

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 7.55.43 AM.pngWhile women’s role in the military expanded rapidly after WWII, perhaps the greatest expansion came post 9/11. After 9/11, the military increased their budget, which created more jobs in the Army, Navy, Coastguard, and Air Force. Women chose to fill these positions and many women were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in combat and aid missions.

In 2010, women were integral to the war effort when the United States Army created the Female Engagement Teams (FET) and Combat Support Teams (CST). These all-female teams were deployed to Afghanistan to engage with Afghan women, which would not be possible for male service members. The women chosen for these teams gathered intelligence, built relationships with the Afghan women, and provided humanitarian aid to their communities. The success of these missions and the fight for equality made so that in January 2013, the Pentagon announced that all military positions were opened to women as long as they could meet the necessary qualifications, and in Spring 2017, history was made when a female soldier was admitted to the prestigious 75th Army Ranger Regiment.Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 7.56.22 AM.png

As of today, more than 200,000 women serve the U.S. military both at home and abroad. To learn more about the women of our military, please check out the Women’s Museum digital timeline “Women in the Military”.


Holly Kemble, Women’s Museum of California Intern

Stop by the Women’s Museum of California July 7th – August 27th and explore the history of women in the U.S. military with the exhibit Heroines in Arms.

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