By Dr. Robert Kane, Air University History Office
/ Published March 29, 2013
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- American women have achieved milestones that have widened their opportunities to serve in the U.S. military.
"I am proud of the contributions women have made to the heritage and legacy of America," said Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander. "From the American Revolution to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, women have supported and served in the military with courage, valor and honor."
He encourages the Maxwell community to learn more about these female leaders.
On July 16, 1971, Col. Jeanne Holm became the first Air Force general officer. Air University named the Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development in her honor.
On June 5, 2012, Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, current commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, became the first female four-star Air Force general.
In the beginning
In the Colonial Period, women helped their husbands defend their isolated homesteads from Indian attacks. During the American Revolution, women served the Continental Army as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and, occasionally, saboteurs.
Perhaps the famous woman "soldier" of the revolution is Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, better known as "Molly Pitcher." At the battle of Monmouth in June 1778, she provided water for the Continental soldiers, fighting in temperatures of more than 100 degrees. When her husband, William Hays, an artilleryman, collapsed, McCauley picked up his ramrod and cleaned and loaded his cannon during the rest of the battle.
During the War of 1812, two women nurses served aboard the USS United States.
During the Mexican War, one woman, disguised as a man, marched 600 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Pueblo, Colo., with her unit until her commander discovered she was a woman and had her returned to St. Joseph for discharge.
The American Civil War saw approximately 6,000 women serve with the armies of both sides, mostly as nurses in field hospitals. Both the Union and Confederacy used women as spies. More than 600 women disguised themselves as men to serve in combat.
Dr. Mary Walker served the Union Army, first as a nurse and then as its first field surgeon. In April 1864, Confederate soldiers arrested her as a spy, and she spent four months as a prisoner of war. In November 1865, President Andrew Johnson authorized the award of the Medal of Honor to Walker, making her the only woman (also one of only eight civilians) to receive this honor.
During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army hired 1,500 women to serve as nurses. In August 1989, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee became the first woman acting assistant Army surgeon general. She also wrote the legislation to establish the U.S. Army's Nurse Corps in 1901, which served as the establishment for the U.S. Navy's Nurse Corps in 1908.
The 20th century
During World War I, 22,656 women served as Army and Navy nurses. The Army also used 300 women as translators, telephone operators and stenographers in France. The Navy and the Marine Corps enlisted nearly 13,000 women, the first women with full military status. More than 400 Army nurses died from the 1918-19 "Spanish flu" epidemic.
About 262,000 women served in the U.S. military during World War II. More than 150,000 served in the Women's Army Corps, 60,000 as nurses and the remainder in administrative positions to release men for combat. About one-third served on U.S. Army Air Forces installations in the United States and overseas.
The U.S. Navy had 80,000 women accepted for volunteer emergency service, or WAVES, and 20,000 women served in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. Another 12,000 served as Coast Guard SPARs (from the Coast Guard's motto, Semper Paratus). By mid-1946, most of these women voluntarily left military service.
An additional 1,074 women served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, to free males for combat. Thirty-eight died in aircraft accidents. They flew more than 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft in every non-combat flying duty. The U.S. government finally granted the WASP full military status in 1977. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.
Several thousand women served in the Armed Forces, mostly as nurses, during the Korean War. More than 1,000 served in Korea, many in mobile surgical hospitals that treated seriously wounded soldiers close to the frontlines. As a result, these soldiers had a greater than 97 percent chance of survival.
More than 7,500 women served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, mostly as nurses. In 1975, one Army nurse was killed by enemy fire, and one Air Force nurse died in the crash of a C-5 Galaxy while evacuating orphans from South Vietnam.
Despite contemporary social biases and legal restrictions, these women paved the way for the numerous milestones after 1973 that allowed women to serve in all military specialties, now including those in direct combat. Today, almost 405,600 women serve in all components of the U.S. armed forces, about 16 percent of the total military population.