From the Amazons to the Valkyries, women in battle have remained well-known figures in both history and myth. Real-life stories of women dressing up as men in order to fight persist in the popular imagination. Joan of Arc, who fought for the French army against the British in the 15th century before being burned at the stake, is just one example.
Women have also contributed to war efforts through their work as support personnel. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, Florence Nightingale, a British nurse, spearheaded efforts to reform the military hospital system and was assisted by countless other dedicated female volunteers.
While many women may not have seen combat as soldiers, others did by working as journalists and photographers. Nellie Bly and Rebecca West reported from the front lines of World War I, while Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White provided the American media with some of the most shocking photographs of World War II. In the United States, women have always played an integral part in the military.
The Early Years: Passing as Men and the Nurse Corps
During the Revolutionary War, women participated in battle by serving as volunteer cooks, nurses and water deliverers. Hundreds of women soldiers passed as men by disguising their clothing and names and fought in the Civil War for both the Confederate and Union armies. One of them, Sarah Edmonds Seeyle, fought for two years in the Second Michigan Infantry as “Franklin Thompson.” By the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. military began performing physical examinations on recruits in order to ensure that only biological men became soldiers.
Both men and women have served as nurses since 1775. The U.S. Army and Navy established Nurse Corps in 1901 and 1908, respectively, allowing women to join the military in an official capacity. During America’s participation in World War I (1917–18), 11,800 women served as Navy yeomen on U.S. shores. More than 22,000 Army and Navy nurses worked in hospital at home and abroad, and hundreds of female Marine reservists worked as telephone operators and office clerks.
After World War I, the Army Reorganization Act of 1920 gave military nurses officer status, but not the same privileges as male officers.
World War II: WAC, WASP and Rosie
In 1942, the Army created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which later became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). During the U.S. involvement in World War II (1941–45), more than 150,000 American women served as WACs in North America, Asia and Europe. The Cadet Nurse Corps, created by the U.S. government in 1943, trained more than 120,000 women for potential military involvement.
World War II also provided women with more opportunities to participate in the war effort. Newly established groups like the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve and the Marine Corps Women Reserve employed tens of thousands of women in groundbreaking roles such as test and civil service pilots, anti-aircraft artillery trainers, mechanics, drivers, photographers, pharmacy assistants, and in communications and intelligence. In all, more than 400,000 American women served in non-combat military positions during the war.
On the home front, more than six million American women took jobs that were previously dominated by men to fill in for the men who were fighting abroad. Women worked in shipyards, munitions and aircraft factories and other wartime industries, and were often given the nickname “Rosie the Riveter.” At the Richmond Shipyards in northern California, 80 percent of the 100,000-person work force during World War II were women.
The 1940s to 1970s: Korea, Vietnam and the Armed Services Integration Act
In 1947, the Army-Navy Nurse Act awarded permanent commissioned officer status to Navy and Army nurses. The following year, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave women permanent status in the reserve as well as the regular forces of the military, but also limited them to a quota of only two percent of the total military. Many women who had joined the Army reserves after World War II found themselves recalled to duty for the Korean War (1950–53). Thousands of servicewomen served in the Vietnam War (1965–75) as well, most of them as nurses.
A Supreme Court ruling in 1973 (Frontiero v. Ferguson) declared that unequal benefits for the dependents of servicewomen—who were not eligible for the same benefits as the dependents of military men—were unconstitutional. The 1970s heralded several breakthroughs for women in the military, as the Army promoted its first woman to the rank of two-star general and the Marine Corps promoted its first woman to brigadier general.
The 1990s: Reversing the “Risk Rule”
About 40,000 U.S. servicewomen were deployed for Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield (1990–91). In 1993, Congress reversed a law that prohibited women from serving on combat ships, opening up hundreds of thousands of previously banned combat positions to servicewomen. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense reversed a “risk rule” that limited women to certain military assignments, thus paving their entry into skilled specialties such as operating attack helicopters. While this new policy declared that military positions could not be closed to women due to potential danger, it did not open direct ground combat positions for women.
In the early 1990s, the Marines reversed a ban on women in pilot positions and the first woman served as a combat pilot in the Army. The Navy also assigned a female aviator on a combat squadron for the first time. In 1999, the first women graduated from the elite Citadel and Virginia Military Institute.
The 2000s: Women in Combat?
Women in the U.S. military today can fly military aircraft, work as military police and serve on combat ships. But they are still prohibited from jobs in the Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery, Special Forces and Forward Air Defense. Such limitations are not equal worldwide; women in Israel, for instance, are drafted into the country’s military, and combat roles are voluntary for women.
But while the 1994 policy banning women from direct combat is still in effect, women have played a far more involved role in the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq than in past conflicts. Certain tactics, such as the establishment of Team Lioness and permitting female support soldiers to be attached to to infantry units, allow the combat ban to be circumvented. Because these women are denied full combat training, they are less prepared and serve at greater risk then the male units they are attached to. More American servicewomen have been killed as a result of hostile action in the war in Iraq than in any other previous war.