- Women were confined to working as cooks, seamstresses, and nurses in the US military during the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Their roles expanded with the formation of the Women’s Army Corps in 1941.
- Women became integrated into the US military in 1978, except they weren’t allowed to serve in combat.
- As of 2015, there are no more restrictions about what positions women can or cannot hold in the army.
During the Revolutionary War, women helped the war effort as cooks and nurses. Some women even disguised themselves as men in order to fight on the front lines, hundreds doing the same during the American Civil War.
Today, 16.9% of the army is female and women continue to climb the ranks and reach historic levels of command (and they’re probably not disguised when they do it …).
Here’s how women’s roles have changed in the US military over the years.
Women were confined to working as cooks, seamstresses, and nurses in the 18th and 19th centuries — but some women distinguished themselves as heroes off the battlefield.
Women weren’t allowed to serve in the armed forces on the battlefield, but they aided the war effort in clerical roles or as cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, or nurses during the Revolutionary War.
There were also heroic women who distinguished themselves during the war such as Nancy Hart, who worked as a spy and is most famous for holding British soldiers at gunpoint in her home after they killed her last turkey.
Some women took drastic measures to join the front lines.
During the Civil War, over 400 women secretly enlisted in the military disguised as men, according to the US Army’s official website. Women also worked as spies, sneaking information past unsuspecting British troops.
During World War I, 35,000 women served in the army.
Most of the women worked as nurses or in food preparation, but they also filled roles of telephone operators and architects in addition to secretarial and administrative work.
A much wider array of positions became available to women with the establishment of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was formed in 1941, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially made it part of the US Army two years later. Women worked as part of Air, Ground, and Service forces, doing everything from repairing radio equipment to cryptography. Instead of nurses, they became medical and surgical technicians.
WAC was disestablished when male and female forces were integrated in 1978.
Slowly, the doors began opening for women seeking a career in military service. Beginning in 1976, women were admitted to all service academies. Basic training became integrated in 1977. A separate branch for women was no longer necessary, so Congress disbanded the Women’s Army Corps in 1978.
Of the 119 women who joined the first group of female cadets at West Point, 62 women graduated as second lieutenants in 1980.
With equal access to a military education, women began rising through the ranks.
Kristin Baker became the first woman to be chosen first captain of the Corps of Cadets at West Point in 1989. General Ann Dunwoody was the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in 2008. Lieutenant General (Retired) Patricia Horoho became the first female Surgeon General of the US Army in 2011.
The Department of Defence opened all combat jobs to women in 2015.
The 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule stated that, “Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta rescinded this rule in 2015.
According to the Military Times, the policy change opened 220,000 new jobs to women in the armed forces: Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force parajumpers, tank drivers, and more.
In 2018, then-Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that “the jury is still out” on whether or not integrating women into the infantry has been a success because there are too few women to obtain comprehensive data. The Military Times reported that nearly 800 women were serving in infantry, cavalry and fire support in five divisions.
Women have gone on to become leaders in combat.
In 2018, First Lieutenant Marina A. Hierl became the first woman to lead an infantry platoon, according to The New York Times. Out of 37 women who have attended the Marines Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, she is one of only two women who have passed and the only one currently leading a platoon.
More women are serving in the military than ever before.
Pew Research reports that there are more women in the active-duty military now than there have ever been before.
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