A Brief History of Women in the Armed Forces

In honor of Veteran’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of milestones in women’s involvement in the U.S. military. Obviously, there are quite a few and we’ve had to leave some off, so feel free to contribute your own examples of female U.S. military heroes.

May 20, 1782 ““ October 25, 1783

WAC Air Controller

Deborah Sampson has the distinction of being the first female soldier (that we know of) in the U.S. Army. She disguised herself as “Robert Shurtleff” to enlist and fight in the Revolutionary War. Sampson not only was wounded in her first battle, but cut a musketball out of her own thigh to avoid her sex being revealed by a doctor. She managed to keep her secret until the Treaty of Paris was signed, after which she was honorably discharged from the Army.

?, 1862 ““ June 19, 1864

Before Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted in the Union Army under the false male identity of “Lyon/s Wakeman,” she had worked as a coal handler on a canal boat, also disguised as a male. Wakeman was just one of many known female soldiers, on both sides of the Civil War, who did this. She contracted dysentery while with her regiment, was transferred to a military hospital (where her identity was kept secret), and died and was buried a U.S. soldier.


The first push for women’s rights to join the military came from Annie Oakley, in a letter she sent to President William McKinley, offering him “50 lady sharpshooters at your service,” who could “furnish their own ammo and ammunition,” to assist the armed forces should tension with Spain mount even further. The Spanish-American War broke out that same year, but Oakley’s offer was rejected.


The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was founded in ’42 as the first government-sanctioned program that allowed women to serve in military roles other than nursing. The Auxiliary Corps converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in ’43. The Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force all established similar programs. Around 150,000 women served in WAC during World War II. They freed up male soldiers to go into combat by taking over positions in transportation, weapons repair, supplies, and communications, among other things. Some WAC’s were even deployed to the European and Pacific theaters. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said of the WAC’s: “their contributions in efficiency, skill, spirit, and determination are immeasurable.”

June 12, 1948

The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed by President Truman. While the Act maintained the Women’s Army Corps for wartime action, it integrated women into the Army during peacetime operations.


Judith Neuffer became one of the first six women to successfully complete the Navy’s pilot training and receive her wings. Neuffer would go on to become the first female Navy pilot to fly through a hurricane and to retire as a Navy Captain.


The Women’s Army Corps was disbanded, and women were finally integrated into the Army (in every field but combat arms) regardless of whether the U.S. is at war or not.

December 20, 1989

During the invasion of Panama, Capt. Linda L. Bray led a force of 30 men and women MPs on a mission, becoming the first woman to command troops in battle.


In United States vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute must start accepting female cadets. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said VMI’s policy had “[denied] to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature–equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

September, 2007

The first all-female Air Force team flew a C-130 Hercules in a combat mission in the Middle East.

March 21, 2008

Spc. Monica Brown, a medic, saved the lives of several fellow soldiers in Afghanistan by using her body to shield them from enemy fire. She was awarded the Silver Star, the U.S.’s third-highest medal for valor, being the first woman to receive it since World War II.

2010 and Beyond

In the spring of 2010, the Navy finally cleared women to serve and deploy on submarines. By 2012, female officers should be fully integrated on subs, though the Navy has not yet tackled the issue of female enlisted soldiers serving on the ships.  “We’re going to look back on this four or five years from now, shrug our shoulders and say, ‘What was everybody worrying about?'” said Rear Admiral Barry Brumer.

Brumer’s quote basically sums up the U.S. military’s attitude towards women–though hesitant, whenever the military allows women into yet another branch or sphere of responsibility, they are not disappointed. There are very few areas left that segregate women, and they are very controversial: women are currently not directly included in most combat operations and cannot join branches such as the infantry, which are slated “combat arms.”

Whenever the U.S. is involved in extended wars, women’s contributions are usually scaled way up and after the wars we see renewed effort to include women in the military. Hopefully that will come to pass when the U.S. ends their occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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