Celebrating WHM: The History of Women in the Military

  • Published
  • By Maj. Amy Hartman
  • 19th Medical Group

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Today, there are approximately two million women veterans and 500,000 women currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. There are approximately 20,000 female veterans just in the state of Arkansas. All of these women have paved the way to allow women in the military today to propagate to higher ranks, filling positions previously not allowed.

In 1775, women started serving with the military in the American Revolution by filling roles as nurses, water bearers, seamstresses, cooks and spies. During the Mexican War in 1846-48, Elizabeth Newcom disguised herself as a male to enlist into the military. She marched 600 miles before being discovered – ushering in a new era of enlistment for women with her idea of enlisting as a male. Nonetheless, women continued to disguise themselves as men in order to serve in the military throughout the Civil War. 

During the Spanish-American War, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee changed the face of women in the military by becoming the first female Acting Assistant Surgeon General and writing a legislation to create a permanent corps of nurses. Thanks to Dr. McGee, the first Army and Navy Nurse corps were established in the early 1900s,
allowing women to freely join the military in medical roles. The Army, Marines, and Coast Guard all had women serve during World War I. 

The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 granted military nurses the status as officers only ranking from O2 to O4, not yet allowing them to fill higher ranking roles. World War II paved new paths for women in the military such as women serving as pilots (stateside), communications, intelligence, supply, medicine and administration. Servicewomen, who had joined the Reserves following World War II, were involuntarily recalled to active-duty during the Korean War, serving in many capacities.

The number of women in the military grew, and approximately 7,000 women served in the Vietnam War. In 1968, the first woman was sworn into the Air National Guard with the passage of Public Law 90-130.

Another major feat for women was when both the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps and the Women's Army Corps Director, were promoted to Brigadier General in 1970. In 1983, approximately 200 Army and Air Force women were among the forces deployed to Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury, serving on aircrews, as military police, and as transportation specialists. In 1988, NASA selected its first Navy woman to be astronaut, leading the way for women to enter into NASA. During the War in the Persian Gulf, 40,000 women were deployed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 2001, a female Air National Guard Security Forces member became the first woman to complete the counter-sniper course, opening opportunities for new roles in the military for women. In 2008, a female was promoted to the rank of four-star general by the U.S. Army for the first time in U.S. military history.

Today, women are commanders, pilots, doctors, security forces, maintainers, and they hold many various positions, both in active-duty and civilian capacities, in all of the services of the military. There are currently over 900 total force women serving at Little Rock Air Force Base. We owe our thanks to all women in the military who have come before us. These women paved the way for future women in the military because of their valiant efforts and sacrifices. Thank you to all of the veterans from the past, present, and future for your sacrifices and commitment.