Monday, May 27th Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States. It is a day set aside to honor those who serve and protect our democracy. Here is my contribution in honor of the very many brave women who have served or who are currently serving in the United States Army.
American Revolutionary War
The origins of service
During the Revolutionary War, women served the U.S. Army in traditional roles as nurses, seamstresses and cooks for troops in camp. Some courageous women served in combat either alongside their husbands or disguised as men, while others operated as spies for the cause. Though not in uniform, women shared Soldiers’ hardships including inadequate housing and little compensation.
The Civil War
More than 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
A willingness to assume new roles
During the Civil War, women stepped into many nontraditional roles. Many women supported the war effort as nurses and aides, while others took a more upfront approach and secretly enlisted in the Army or served as spies and smugglers. Women were forced to adapt to the vast social changes affecting the nation, and their ability and willingness to assume these new roles helped shape the United States.
The creation of the Army Nurse Corps
With the Spanish-American War came an epidemic of typhoid fever and a need for highly qualified Army nurses. The surgeon general requested and promptly received congressional authority to appoint women nurses under contract, April 28, 1898. Due to the exemplary performance of these Army contract nurses, the U.S. military realized that it would be helpful to have a corps of trained nurses, familiar with military ways, on call. This led the Army to establish a permanent Nurse Corps in 1901.
World War I
More than 35,000 American women served in the military during World War I.
Their service helped propel the passage of the 19th Amendment
Upwards of 25,000 American women between the ages of 21 and 69 served overseas during World War I. They began going in August of 1914—at first singly or with a few companions, later with service organizations, and lastly at the request of the U.S. government. Although the largest number were nurses, women served in numerous other capacities – from administrators and secretaries to telephone operators and architects. Many women continued to serve long after Armistice Day, some returning home as late as 1923. Their efforts and contributions in the Great War left a lasting legacy that inspired change across the nation. The service of these women helped propel the passage of the 19th Amendment, June 4, 1919, guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Army Nurse Corps
More than half of the women who served in the U.S. armed forces in World War I – roughly 21,000 – belonged to the Army Nurse Corps.
U.S. Army Signal Corps
The U.S. Army Signal Corps recruited and trained more than 220 women – best known as the “Hello Girls” – to serve overseas as bilingual telephone operators.
Civilian Welfare Organization
Women served in large numbers in civilian welfare organizations both at home and abroad, including the American Red Cross, YMCA, and Salvation Army.
- The National Service School is organized by the Women’s Naval Service to train women for duties in time of war and national disaster.
- Large numbers of civilian women worked in the manufacturing of munitions. The Army Ordnance Corps contracts women clerks to support its operations.
- The Army School of Nursing is authorized as an alternative to utilizing nurses’ aides in Army hospitals, May 25.
World War II
‘To free a man to fight’
Although the idea of women in the Army other than the Army Nurse Corps was not completely abandoned following World War I, it was not until the threat of world war loomed again that renewed interest was given to this issue. With the rumblings of World War II on the horizon, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts states, “I was resolved that our women would not again serve with the Army without the same protection the men got.” Consequently, the creation of the Women’s Army Corps is one of the most dramatic gender-changing events in American history.
Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were the first brave women to fly American military aircraft. They forever changed the role of women in aviation.
Women step up to perform an array of critical Army jobs, “to free a man to fight.” They work in hundreds of fields such as military intelligence, cryptography, parachute rigging, maintenance and supply, to name a few. Additionally, more than 60,000 Army Nurses serve around the world and over 1,000 women flew aircraft for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Through the course of the war, 140,000 women served in the U.S. Army and the Women’s Army Corps proved itself vital to the effort. The selfless sacrifice of these brave women usher in new economic and social changes that will forever alter the role of women in American society.
- Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) is established, May 14. WAAC women work in primarily four fields: baking, clerical, driving and medical. Within one year, this expands to over 400 jobs.
- The 149th Post Headquarters Company becomes the first WAAC unit to serve overseas.
- WAAC converts into Women’s Army Corps (WAC), July 1, giving women military status, equal benefits and pay, and the same disciplinary code as men.
- A WAC recruiting campaign in Puerto Rico results in 200 women being selected from a pool of the 1,500 applicants. They were sent to Fort Ogelthorpe, Ga. for training.
- The 6888th Central Postal Battalion is the first and only African-American WAC unit deployed overseas during World War II.
- Japanese-American women are recruited to work in the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minn. Other Nisei WACs receive training in clerical, medical and supply positions.
A Permanent Presence
Gender and racial integration
The period immediately following World War II was one of uncertainty and constant change for the Women’s Army Corps personnel. The original intent of the WAC was to last for the duration of the war plus 6-months. However, this post-war period also marked great strides for integrating both the WAC and the Army Nurse Corps into the Regular Army.
- Women’s Armed Services Integration Act creates regular and reserve status for women in the Army, June 12.
- The first WAC Training Center officially opens at Camp Lee, Va., Oct. 4.
- The Army eliminates the 10 percent racial quota, ending racial segregation in the WAC.
- Company B, previously an all-black unit, completes its last class of segregated training, welcoming desegregation at Camp Lee.
- Army nurses were the only military women allowed into the combat theater during the Korean War.
- The involuntary recall of reserve officers for the Korean War marks the first time women are summoned to active duty without their consent.
Professional and Poised
The Women’s Army marches on
After the Korean War, and with the move of the WAC Training Center and School to Fort McClellan, Ala., the focus of the Corps shifted to the examination of management practices and the image of the WAC. The WAC directors in the 1950s and 1960s sought to expand WAC by increasing the types of jobs available in the Army, and by promoting the Corps to not only possible recruits, but also to their family members. The leadership worked hard to act as role models and to instruct the women to respect the Corps, take pride in their work, and ensure that their personal behavior and appearance was always above reproach. Their success was marked by a request from the Army chief of staff to lift the recruitment ceiling on the number of women. It was also during this era we see the removal of restrictions on promotions, assignments and utilization.
- First Army green uniform issued to women in March, marking a step toward equality between men and women Soldiers.
- First WAC officers assigned to Vietnam, nearly a decade after U.S. involvement in the war.
- WACs allowed to serve in the Army National Guard.
- Public Law 90-130 equalized promotion and retirement rules for all military officers.
- Sgt. Maj. Yzetta L. Nelson becomes the first WAC promoted to command sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank, March 30.
- First three women graduate from the Army War College in May.
- Brig. Gen. Elizabeth P. Hoisington and Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays become the first two women in the U.S. Armed Forces to achieve the rank of brigadier general, June 11.
- All MOSs open up to women, except for 48 combat or hazardous duty MOSs.
- Women allowed to command men, except in combat units, for the first time in history.
A Time of Change
Moving toward equality and the disestablishment of the WAC
The Vietnam War, the elimination of the draft, and the rise of the feminist movement had a major impact on both the Women’s Army Corps and Army Nurse Corps. There was a renewed emphasis on parity and increased opportunity for women in uniform.
- Mandatory defensive weapons training initiated for enlisted women, June 1975.
- Women are permitted to be admitted to all service academies.
- Women authorized to serve the same length of overseas tours as men, Jan. 1.
- The first combined gender class for a military occupational specialty, or MOS, school begins, July 8.
- Men and women integrate in the same basic training units in September.
- WAC is disestablished as a separate Corps of the Army.
A New Era
Providing greater opportunities for women
The disestablishment of the WAC and the integration of women into the Regular Army paved the way for women to continue breaking down gender barriers. In the ensuing years, the Army was called upon to respond to regional conflicts, natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the globe. The roles of Army Women are tested and re-defined during these contingency operations.
- In November, 2nd Lt. Marcella Hayes becomes the first black female pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces when she graduated from Army Flight School.
- The first women cadets graduate from U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.
- More than 100 women participate in Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, the first assignment for women since the disestablishment of the WAC.
- Women are allowed to fly helicopters for the first time in an armed conflict.
- Capt. Linda Bray becomes the first woman to command U.S. troops in combat during Operation Just Cause, Panama.
- In the largest call up of women since World War II, over 24,000 women served during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Looking to the future
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 mark a pivotal changing point for Army women. As the Army’s mission changed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, so did the roles of women in its ranks. With the Global War on Terror campaign, there was a rapid expansion of jobs and change in roles for Army women. Beginning In 2016, women have the equal right to choose any military occupational specialty including ground combat units that were previously unauthorized.
- Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester becomes the first woman in U.S. military history to earn the Silver Star for direct combat action, June 16.
- Col. Stephanie Dawson, the first female brigade commander in the New York Army National Guard, takes command of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, Nov. 16.
- Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody becomes the first female four-star general in military history, Nov. 14.
- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ends the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members, and integrates women into combat units, Jan. 24.
- Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh signs a directive authorizing more opportunities for women – approximately 33,000 position – to serve in a wider range of roles that previously were closed to women, implemented April 8.