Like most people, the first woman who comes to my mind is my mother.
Her history (or herstory) is quite tremendous for someone who had always just been known as “Little Allyson”. Born a sickly child, my mother was a frequent patient in hospitals, and that experience inspired her to become a nurse at a very young age. Though she had little means, she was determined to attend college and fulfill her dream. She began attending Viterbo University in 1983 and soon after discovered that she could join the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to help fund her education. After two summers of grueling military basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, (along with many study hours and exams,) my mother graduated with a degree in nursing and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. No longer was she called “Little Allyson”, but was saluted to and referred to as “Ma’am”. The youngest of three children and the only daughter, my mother is the first and only military officer in her family to date.
Female involvement in the military (as female involvement in any male-dominated organization, industry, or institution,) has been a frustratingly slow process. Though American women were not allowed to fight in combat until recent years, they have been taking up arms since the Revolutionary War. Deborah Sampson was the first known woman in the U.S. to disguise herself as a man to join combat and served in the Continental Army until her true sex was discovered, and she consequently received an honorable discharge in 1783. The practice of women dressing as men to serve their country on the field took place during the next 100+ years through the Civil War, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War. Cathay Williams became the first documented African-American woman to enlist in the Army in 1866 after she disguised herself as a man following the Civil War. It wasn’t until the 20th century that women were slowly being allowed to serve in the various combat roles and attend the five military academies. Women only had partial involvement in the United States ROTC program and could not train alongside men to become officers in the military forces until 1969. To this day, women are still fighting to fight; the Department of Defense did not open all combat jobs to women until 2016, which is the same year Capt. Kristen Griest became the Army’s first female infantry officer. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Navy abolished its “males only” policy on submarines, and it wasn’t until 2004 that Col. Linda McTague was the first woman to command a U.S. Air Force fighter squadron.
The military is just one broad example of how much we can appreciate women’s history, contributions, and how far we have come; but it is also a prime example of how far we have to go. Currently, only 15.3% of the entire active-duty personnel in the U.S. military are women. This issue is, of course, not just unique to the U.S. military, but is rampant all over the world especially in positions of power (in politics, business, medicine, education, etc.). But if history (or herstory) informs us of anything, it is that women have always been capable and brave and trailblazing. Regardless of rules, there have always been women who have broken them in order to fight for their country or attend school or vote in elections or become presidents and leaders. It is because of these women that my mother could attend college and become a 2nd Lieutenant when she did. It is because of these women that I can own property, have a professional career, choose to marry or not, and so on. To me, women’s history is solid proof that I, and all my sisters, deserve to be here and deserve a seat at the table. Women’s history and each woman’s history deserves to be told and retold so that we may continue to make progress. And if we must break more rules, so be it.
Hello, my name is Emily and I am a volunteer for The Women’s Museum of California. My ambition is to receive my master’s in Women’s Studies and work for non-profit organizations that help women across the world achieve equality in education, reproductive rights, and a life free of domestic violence & abuse.
GREAT resources for reading: