Military Women's Long, Ongoing March to Equality

Posted on May 20, 2013

Military women have marched toward increased rights throughout United States history. From the American Revolution, when they operated primarily as nurses, to the Iraq War, when they served covertly on the frontlines in Team Lioness, women have finally been acknowledged for the service they provide to the United States. As of January 2013, they are legally recognized as ground combat fighters.

Still, women and men alike struggle with the reality of rape in the military. Twenty percent of women and one percent of men have been sexually assaulted during a term of service. After The Invisible War shined a light on the issue, the power to prosecute sexual assault moved up the chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has also credited the documentary with shaping her approach to the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013, announced May 16, which enables victims of sexual assault in the military to file their case with a JAG prosecutor instead of their commanding officers. In honor of Memorial Day, watch Rebel (airing May 24 on PBS’s Voces) to learn more about one neglected female figure who shaped the United States military, Loreta Velazquez, Confederate soldier and Union spy. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of female soldiers’ long path to the present:

  • During the American Revolution, in 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates told Gen. George Washington that, "the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses." Washington beseeched Congress, which approved one nurse for every ten patients. Women also served as water bearers, cooks, laundresses, and saboteurs.
  • During the Civil War, women soldiers on both sides disguised themselves as men in order to serve. In 1866, Dr. Mary Walker received the Medal of Honor. She is the only female to have been awarded this highest honor.
  • In World War I, 21,480 Army nurses serve in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. Eighteen African-American Army nurses serve stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. More than 400 military nurses die in the line of duty. The majority died from the "Spanish Flu.”
  • The Army establishes the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. They were the first women besides nurses to “serve within the ranks of the United States Army.” More than 150,000 women served as WACs during the war. In 1942, Nancy Harkness Love organized 25 women pilots into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The WAFS flew planes from the factory to military bases.
  • WACs in the Vietnam War supported the troops mainly in administrative military occupational specialties (MOSs). One WAC detachment was assigned to Headquarters, first at Ton Son Nhut Airbase, then at Long Binh. “While engineers readied new barracks at Long Binh, the women lived in a building typical of the tropics, with openings between outer wallboards and no windows,” according to Army Heritage Center Foundation. “Red dust covered their rooms during the dry season, and rain soaked them during the wet season.”

A Small Sampling of Underacknowledged Military Women:

  • Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die serving for the U.S. military. A member of the Hopi tribe, she was a specialist in Iraq. Piestewa was ambushed near Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003. Piestewa Peak, a 2608 ft mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, is named in her honor.
  • Cuban-born Loreta Velazquez, the subject of Rebel, disguised herself as a man to serve as a Confederate soldier. Her gender was discovered in New Orleans and she was discharged, but that didn’t stop her from re-enlisting. She later served as a Union spy dressed at times as a male or female.
  • In 2008, Army General Ann Dunwoody become the first female four-star general in U.S. history. In August 2012, Army General Janet Wolfenbarger became the second.

For more information about upcoming broadcasts featuring inspiring women and girl leaders, visit


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