Women had played minute roles in warfare throughout history, gradually transcending from plain caretakers of troops in camps to filling in crucial wartime jobs during the Second World War when America suffered a shortage of conscripts. The desperate need for more soldiers to be sent to the front during World War II meant opportunities for women to fill the labor force gap, allowing them to wiggle their way into other professions besides the defense industry.

Nevertheless, women have always played minor but important roles, as far back as supporting their male counterparts in defending or conquering territories—whether on the home front or alongside them on the battlefront.

Let’s take a quick review of women’s role in the military and their contribution to tactical advancements over time.

American Revolutionary War

During this era, fighting was still strictly for men however didn’t stop American women from supporting their counterparts in securing the country’s independence and breaking free from European colonization. While many take on traditional roles, such as nurses, seamstresses, cooks, and caretakers, some brave women risk their lives serving on the battlefield alongside their husbands or disguised as men. In contrast, others blend into the masses to operate as indistinguishable spies. Moreover, having women around camps made the lives of usually wounded and sick troops tolerable, with some helping to maintain high morale and hope in discouraged soldiers. As civilians, American women also played active roles, whether alerting troops to enemy movements, passing on messages and intelligence, or transporting contraband. When the war escalated, some would offer their homes as hideouts and secret meetup grounds for desperate troops as their camps were being tracked down or overrun.

american revolution
An illustration of the women of Bryan Station fetching water while Native Americans, who are about to besiege the settlement, lurk behind trees—a significant event in Kentucky during the American Revolutionary War. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The desperation during this period had highlighted and further pushed women to take on active yet traditional roles, but little did they know that this would become the starting point for what they would evolve into for years to come.

American Civil War

Women become bolder during the Civil War. Since, unfortunately, this war meant fighting against brothers and sisters, many American women had to step out from their traditional roles, such as nurses and caretakers, and step into nontraditional functions to increase the fighting force of their counterparts, including disguising themselves as men (as joining the military at this time still forbidden for women) or partaking in espionage and smuggling activities. Aside from actively participating in the battlefront, some women also tirelessly worked at the homefront to continue supporting the war effort by caring for agricultural assets to maintain food supplies.

Thousands of women were caught in the crossfire. While the majority chose sides to fight on, a few others decided to stay in the middle ground, care for Union and Confederate soldiers, and provide humanitarian aid to those greatly affected by the war.

Civil War Nurses
Nurses during the American Civil War circa 1862. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

During this period, the first and only woman received the highest military valor award, which was controversial since she did not serve as a commissioned military officer.