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.

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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.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was among the exceptional women of her time who particularly excelled in medicine. A few years after graduating as a medical doctor, the Civil War broke out. As a patriot, Walker wanted to join the Union army as a surgeon but was immediately denied because she was a woman. Overqualified as a nurse, Walker volunteered in a temporary hospital instead and later “organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help families of the wounded who came to visit them at local hospitals.” Eventually, she was accepted and appointed as a War Department surgeon in 1863 after a year of service as a field doctor throughout Virginia. A year later, she was reported to be captured by the South and held as a prisoner of war for months. Some sources suggested that Walker intentionally did that “so she could spy for the North, but there is little evidence to support that claim.”

Mary Edwards Walker
Mary Edwards Walker, M.D. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, the doctor returned home after a successful prisoner exchanged and continued her medical profession at a hospital for women prisoners. Upon ending her government service for good, Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson. Still, it was revoked two years after (alongside 910 others) due to her civilian status. By 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal, reclaiming her spot as the first and only woman awarded the Medal of Honor—representing all women who fought and served during that period and for generations to come.

Spanish-American War

As tensions between the Spanish and Americans escalated into a war, another type of battle emerged alongside it that called for a different set of soldiers to fight against—nurses. Not just any nurses but those who were highly qualified to combat a quickly rising epidemic of typhoid fever, malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox that greatly plagued soldiers. The Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901 after realizing the need to have “a corp of trained nurses” familiar with how military operations work, which proved to be a critical decision because the Spanish Flu pandemic broke out seventeen years later. One of the prominent figures to rise to the occasion in this period was Dita Hopkins Kinney, a native New Yorker appointed as the first superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps shortly after its founding.

Before the establishment of the Nurse Corps, troops heavily relied on civilian volunteers to treat wounds, fatal injuries, and contractable diseases, which meant most weren’t equipped with “a high level of competence” that could keep up with the hectic field. Some volunteers were professional nurses, but there needed to be more to accommodate thousands of soldiers, especially when these men were deployed outside the states. By the end of the Spanish-American War, a law had been passed for “the surgeon general to maintain a list of qualified nurses who were willing to serve in an emergency,” thus, the first Reserve Corps of women was formed to support the Army Medical Department.

World War I and II

The establishment of the Nurse Corps was just the beginning for women to have a permanent place in the military. This further expanded at the dawn of the First World War in 1914 and with the rise of modern machines in the defense industry. Aside from nursing sick and injured soldiers, women began filling roles as administrators, secretaries, telephone/radio operators (famously known as the “Hello Girls”), architects and designers, and factory workers, which boosted the depleting workforce, enabled efficiency in military operations, and maintained the flow of supplies.

Large welfare organizations run by civilians also grew in this period, with more women joining as their official position in the military continued to be uncleared. Humanitarian organizations such as the American Red Cross have persisted well into the 21st Century in serving in hospitals and providing civilians, refugees, and even wounded soldiers relief and other assistance. Another welfare organization women partook in was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which provided rest and recreation for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and other activities to recuperate and foster morale.

By the end of the First World War, an estimated 35,000 plus American women served in the military, which would further expand when the country was catapulted into joining the Second.

Critical Roles Women Played During the World War II

Read Next: Critical Roles Women Played During the World War II

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Women as agricultural workers during World War II circa 1942. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite their direct and active role in the military, women still don’t have the same protection as their counterparts who rendered unwavering service to defend and fight for the country. This was especially highlighted when America briefly faced a workforce shortage, requiring almost all non-disabled men to be sent to the frontlines, leaving home front jobs vacant and some battlefield positions unfilled. Thus, the creation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). The service branch eventually became the most consequential precursor for women to hold a permanent place in the military and gave women equal benefits, pay, and the exact disciplinary code as men.

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Women take on pivotal roles in the war industry. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Here women were offered almost all the positions previously only opened to their counterparts, such as military intelligence, cryptography, medical and clerical, and maintenance and supply, to name a few. In contrast, other women embarked on their military careers as pilots for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), who were tasked to deliver aircraft from factories to military bases.

Military Career for Women in the 21st Century and Beyond

When World War II ended, so did the WAC and the jobs it provided for its veterans. But because of the constant efforts to achieve a permanent place in service, women eventually breakthrough and, together with the Nurse Corps, were finally integrated into the Regular Army, earning equal benefits, pay, and recognition the generation before wanted for years. Nonetheless, the integration was just the beginning.

Sailors of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) stationed at NAS Patuxent River circa the 1940s. (Image source: DVIDS)

Throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars, more and more women came to enlist and serve different military branches and gained access to previously unauthorized jobs, notably participating in complicated missions and deployed highly close to the frontlines of the war. By the mid-1970s, women enlistees were now authorized for mandatory defensive weapons training, attend all service academies, and train side-by-side with male counterparts for a military occupational specialty (MOS). Moreover, women also were permitted to serve the same length of overseas tours as men two years before the integration of the WAC into the regular Army.

Women’s roles in the military evolved. By the end of the 1980s, they constituted the majority of reserves, boosting America’s combat readiness in time for the Persian Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1994, women were given the green light to engage the enemy in direct combat. Still, only those deemed “eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they qualified, except for units below brigade level.” Meanwhile, for those assigned in constant warring theaters outside the US, such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, women soldiers were equipped to handle “food riots, terrorist attacks, ethnic and clan conflicts, and peacekeeping.” And flaws learned throughout these missions were used to constantly redefine women’s functions and keep their place in the military relevant.

Soldiers visit Zhari District Center outside Forward Operating Base Pasab
A US Army Officer gathering information from a local woman at the Woman’s Center based outside of Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, December 17, 2011. (Image source: DVIDS)

This went on well into the 21st Century and into another era of combat against terrorists. Accordingly, the 9/11 attacks marked a pivotal change in women’s military careers. In 2005, then-Sargeant Leigh Ann Hester was the first woman to receive the Silver Star medal for her heroic actions during a firefight outside Baghdad. Three years later, General Ann E. Dunwoody became the first female to be promoted to a four-star officer rank.

By 2016, women gained access and the freedom to choose any military occupational specialty they wished to partake in, if qualified, including ground combat units. Months later, Captain Kristen Griest and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver became the first female soldier to graduate from the US Army Ranger School. At this point, skies the limit for the military career of a female soldier, that is, of course, as long as she is qualified. Most recently, Honorable Christine E. Wormuth became the first female to serve as the Secretary of the Army (SA). She was appointed the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Force Development in 2012. She became Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in 2014 before becoming the 25th serving SA in 2021.

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A US Army General Ann E. Dunwoody at her retirement ceremony, August 15, 2012. (Image source: DVIDS)

According to the Department of Defense (DoD), for the Fiscal Year of 2021, women service members comprised about 19 percent of enlistees, nine percent of warrant officers, and 20 percent of commissioned officers. Furthermore, the top career fields for enlisted female members include Functional Support and Administration, Electrical/Mechanical Equipment Repairers, Service, and Supply Handlers, Communication and Intelligence Specialists, and Health Care Officers. On the other hand, most female commissioned officers worked as Health Care Officers; Tactical Officers; Engineering and Maintenance Officers; Supply, Procurement, and Allied Officers; and Administrators.

On what service branch do women mostly serve: Army has the most number of females workforce (both civilian personnel and combatants), followed by the Navy, DoD, Air Force, National Guard, and Marine Corps.