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The Evolution of the American Woman Warrior

The Evolution of the American Woman Warrior

Major Lucinda R. Wilson, USA

A man goes into a bar and seats himself on a stool. The bartender looks at him and says, “What’ll it be buddy?”

The man says, “Set me up with seven whiskey shots and make them doubles.” The bartender does this and watches the man slug one down, then the next, then the next, and so on until all seven are gone almost as quickly as they were served. Staring in disbelief, the bartender asks why he’s doing all this drinking.

“You’d drink them this fast too if you had what I have.”

The bartender hastily asks, “What do you have pal?”

The man quickly replies, “I have a dollar.”

So… good evening…..that guy must be serving in the armed forces- and everybody knows we don’t do it for the money….. As my father so eloquently stated, I am a career Army Officer. I am not a scholar or a historian, but as soldier and citizen in service to our Nation I welcome this opportunity to speak tonight on the occasion of Memorial Day and in this forum. It is truly an honor and a privilege.

Memorial Day was first conceived in 1865 by a druggist named Henry C. Wells, in Waterloo, NY. He thought that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. What began as a small community gesture became General Order Number 11, in 1868, then known as “Decoration Day” that included parades and ceremonies; and gained Congressional sanction in 1965 as what we now call Memorial Day. So it is with great respect that I take this opportunity to include in the rolls this Memorial Day, our woman warriors.

There have been many accounts of woman warriors fighting for American freedom, liberty and country; some of which are easily discounted, obviously impossible, or clearly a stretch of over eager imagination to provide today’s military women with a heritage of our own by making history include women. This evening, however, we’ll take a short journey through the history of Women in the Military to discuss the evolution of the American Woman Warrior, beginning with the birth of our Nation, and traveling through the emergence of women through the World Wars, the Vietnam era, warfighting in Iraq.

The first American Woman Warriors.

Our first American woman warriors are from the Revolution. They are Mary Hays McCauly and Mary Cochran Corbin, both wives of Continental Army soldiers, with amazing stories of heroism.

The most widely accepted truth of the first woman warrior is of the Artilleryman’s wife, Mrs. Mary Hays McCauly. As was common in that time, servicemen’s wives (and families for that matter) moved alongside and in service to the Continental Army to take care of the daily rigors of washing, cooking, cleaning, tending to the service member, and nursing the wounded and ill. Mary distinguished herself in action at the battle of Monmouth June 26, 1778, when in the course of her efforts to take pitcher and after pitcher of water (hence earning her “legendary’ nickname of Molly Pitcher) to soldiers, she found herself evacuating a wounded trooper by carrying him out of harms way on her back to safety, and then returning to the fray to witness her husband fall wounded by enemy fire- She did what any gal would do: Without hesitation, Molly stepped forward and took the rammer staff from her fallen husband’s hands and manned the gun; sustaining her post in the face of heavy enemy fire throughout the battle. Later, General George Washington, himself, issued her warrant as a Non-commissioned officer, and bears now the additional title of Sergeant Molly…

Another of our history’s famed woman warriors of the Revolution is Margaret Corbin. She was the first woman to receive pension from the United States government as a disabled soldier. Margaret’s husband John was stationed at Fort Washington, New York. On November 16, 1776 the fort was attacked by British and Hessian troops. John was manning a cannon when his fellow cannoneer was killed. Recognizing the need for a two man team, Margaret and John worked together to man the cannon until John was killed in action and Margaret was then left to single-handedly continue to fight. She did so until she too was wounded by grapeshot that tore her shoulder, mangled her chest and severely lacerated her jaw. She was evacuated to the rear and finally on to Philadelphia but never fully recovered from her injuries. In 1779, the Continental Congress granted Margaret a pension of “½ the pay and allowances of a soldier of service”. Additionally, she continued to be included on the regimental muster sheets until 1783. These two acts therefore recognized a woman, however unintentionally, as a bone fide soldier for her distinguished bravery and gallantry in action. A recognition that we would not see again until more modern times.

Sergeant Molly Pitcher and Margaret Cochran Corbin bear such significant similarities some historical accounts claim they are the same person, or merely early American folklore. Regardless, the well documented and constant manpower shortages of the Revolution without a doubt warranted the necessary involvement of women to contribute to the war-fighting effort. In fact, the Army compensated these women- generally spouses of the service member- with rations in exchange for their services. In the case of medical service, these ladies were hired as employees, although not recognized as service members with military status/rank, they were paid a regular wage.

The stories of these early American Woman Warriors like Corbin and Pitcher or even the more controversial likes of Deborah Samson, known as “Shirtliffe”; Lucy Brewer, “the first girl Marine” who masqueraded as men in order to serve, or Sarah Edwards, the nurse, spy, courier and soldier represent what some argue was of a greater majority than is documented in an American history chiefly penned by men and during eras in which such heroics by women may not be well tolerated, let a lone celebrated. In that, America has traditionally found place for its women citizens in less gallant, less conspicuous, or less gruesome places and tends to reject the idea; or at a minimum disapprove of women on the front line.

Emergence from the World Wars, through Vietnam

Peacekeeping and the Road to Iraqi Freedom

It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention. I think that it is likewise responsible for most social evolution. Emergence of a militarized American woman was born out of necessity during the World Wars when men could not be spared from the front lines and it fell upon women- the only other available workforce- to perform duties beyond their traditional roles. The establishment of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps in 1901 and 1908 marks the beginning of documented female military service. Nursing had become an exclusively female occupation by the turn of the century, making the need for nurses who could be sent wherever there were troops made necessary the admission of women into the service as auxiliaries. Unfortunately, the prevailing prerogative in the military was that nursing had little to do with soldiering. Consequently, the first military nurses held no rank and wore uniforms bearing no resemblance to the men’s uniforms and no one seriously referred to them as soldiers or sailors.

The same was true of the service women in the First World War. American military badly needed clerks, typists, and telephone operators, all of which were widely recognized as acceptable female occupations for which the services could avoid the chore of training men and instead could employ women. Consequently, in 1916 the Secretary of the Navy questioned whether or not the law required that yeomen be male. In absence of legal restriction to the contrary, the Navy enlisted some 12,500 “yeomanettes” in the Naval Reserve. The Marines followed suit one year later. The Army, however, had not yet brought itself to such evolvement; during WWI, women would only serve as nurses. Some authorities say the women were never formally inducted as enlisted members. Others say they were. Either way, the participation of women in the American armed forces during the war is undeniably significant; however slight the documentation. In fact, three Army nurses were decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross (a combatant medal second only to the Medal of Honor), and twenty-three nurses received the Distinguished Service Medal. Thirty-eight women made the ultimate sacrifice; they were buried overseas in American cemeteries.

All of the women who served in uniform during World War I were returned to civilian life when the war was over except for a handful of nurses. The stereotypical and nearly clichéd “masculine mystique” or the idea that the military and war fighting is man’s business, or an improper place for women prevailed, and the progress made by enlisted females seemingly had no effect.

Between the two World Wars there were a series of false starts for woman warriors. Fortunately, these completely unviable concepts to create a Women’s Auxiliary to augment the Army in times of war failed due in part to political pressure but also as a consequence of their horribly inadequate form. The idea of women in service would not be revisited until 1941 produced the necessary catalyst: World War II. In just three years, the United States would make some extremely pivotal developments. The bill to establish the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp was introduced by Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers in May 1941, but met much resistance in the House of Representatives for concern of the implied detriment to manhood to have women partake in the effort to win a battle. The bill finally passed in 1942, as did bills establishing the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard Women’s Reserves. While the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp did represent forward progress, it unfortunately, did not afford legal status, pay, or rank equitable to that of their male counterparts. The Auxiliary Corp was not part of the Army, but was run by the Army. The result of these inequities was an almost immediate standstill of the Auxiliary Corps’ training facilities. Finally in the summer of 1943 the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was established and replaced the Army Auxiliary Corps. It gave full military status to its participants. Equitable rank and pay wouldn’t come for another generation, but it was progress nonetheless.

Actually, once established as legitimate women services, the Women Reserves and the Army Corps were almost regarded with enthusiasm by politicians and military leaders alike. So long as these all female services maintained an appropriate distance form occupational specialties identified as “unsuitable” for women approval remained high. Positions requiring considerable physical strength, jobs requiring long training time, supervisory positions and, of course, combatant positions were automatically unsuitable for women. The same reception was not shared throughout the ranks of military men. The attitudes of male service members in that era were very much like they are now. In the words of a Coast Guard Women’s Reserve Officer, “Reception ranged from enthusiasm through amused condescension to open hostility.” In fact, the vicious attacks on the morals of American woman service members and outright slander was almost crippling to the fledgling movement. Women no more wanted to contend with such discouraging behavior then they wanted to challenge their husbands, fathers, and brothers who had come to forbid their women from joining military organizations. At the conclusion of World War II, the women services had outgrown their novelty, and the integration of women had gone much better than expected. However, when the WAC officer strength surpassed the requirements of the WAC enlisted the Army cut off the flow. After all, the whole thrust behind the Army’s desire for military women was to provide enlisted skills not officers.

The launch point from 1942 for the integration of women in military service couldn’t have predicted the challenges or the developments that would occur. Although the Women’s Service Act of 1948 was signed into law to finally establish a permanent place for women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, America would not revisit the use of women as combatants until 1975.

A thirty-five year stagnation of women’s line programs ended with Vietnam. Once again the military’s manpower shortages to support a war fighting effort, coupled with changing social and labor roles for women forced change upon the ever reluctant, ever traditional armed services. The result was the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and a drive for an all volunteer force. It was during this time that legislation was passed to equalize promotion opportunities for women (for example permanent promotion to Flag Officer status: women could now be promoted to generals), as well as removing caps on service strengths. Clearly, the intent of the new legislation was not to challenge the masculine character of the military, but however unintentional the discussion of women warriors again surfaced.

Women returned again to a combat theater for the first time since the 2d World War. The Women’s Air Force contributed between five and six hundred women to service in Southeast Asia, as did and estimated five hundred WAC, and a small number of female Marines; but the nurses and medical specialists led with a staggering five or six thousand women over the course of the entire war. American women again proved their ability to perform under fire through nightly Viet Cong mortar and sniper fire probes of base camps, during the TET Offensive, and throughout the course of the conflict. The long and painful drawdown and ultimate withdrawal from Vietnam had no less affect on the women warriors that served in the war. In some ways, there homecoming was more difficult in that they faced the incredulous reaction to their service in Southeast Asia with unfounded innuendos about their morals as women.

America would not find herself fighting another war until the 90s, but the evolution of the woman warrior would continue to make legislative and social strides. Male and female promotions became integrated. The women’s corps of services dissolved in favor of integrated volunteer forces, and gradually women officers took command of mixed units. The latter was a tremendous development because to that point women were not permitted and often automatically deemed unable to command men.

In 1991 Congress repealed the 1948 law that excluded women from assignment to military aircraft engaged in combat missions. By 1993 the law had not yet been implemented, but on the 28th of April that year then Defense Secretary Les Aspin would announce at a press conference that he was ordering the military services to open assignment in combat aviation to women as a first step toward allowing them into virtually every combat position short of those in front-line ground combat units. The Gulf War of 1991 is recognized as another defining moment for women warriors. Of the 540 thousand Americans that served in Desert Storm/Desert Shield 41 thousand or 7 percent of the US forces were women. At the time, it marked the single largest deployment of women in American history.

Perhaps the Gulf War further exposed the degree to which the US needed women in service. In fact, the 1990s bore little resemblance to Molly Pitcher’s days, in that women were so integrated into the armed forces that combatant involvement became expected and anticipated.

Iraqi Freedom

In March 2003, my family got the unwelcome phone call they new was inevitable. My unit was selected for immediate deployment to Iraq. I had 3 days from notification to departure to collect our equipment, including 8 OH-58D (I) Kiowa Warrior Reconnaissance Helicopters, 58 service people (only 2 of which were women; myself included), and 8 vehicles. My task and purpose was a standard Cavalry Mission of securing the terrain between Iraq and Kuwait in order to allow friendly coalition forces freedom of maneuver and to prevent the enemy from influencing routes and lines of communication. The task ahead was daunting- not only would I be deploying as a separate company- which means that I would be deploying independently of my usual higher headquarters, without the overhead canopy of organic leadership and resources- but also the war was only beginning, the enemy resolve had not yet been discovered. This deployment would log me into the 2d Armored Cavalry’s rolls as the first female combatant Troop Commander in Regiment’s history. My troop would overcome the challenges that our peculiar command relationship presented, fight its way into Baghdad and with God’s sweet grace all return home alive.

In a year’s time there were many discoveries. War isn’t what they show us on TV. It is violent and challenging; destructive but also creative. It’s physical and emotional. It isn’t always the enemy that we fight, sometimes we couldn’t even identify the enemy- they aren’t uniformed, they’re crafty and easily camouflage into the urban battlefield. Sometimes we battled the weather (our hottest day was 139 degrees), and sometimes we weathered the media… Sometimes our fight had nothing to do with the enemy, but was about preservation; preservation of one another, of our senses of humor, of our sensitivity. Without such effort, war can harden one beyond recognition.

The discoveries were certainly many. Perhaps, women were never supposed to serve on the front lines. And perhaps, in the old days of rank and file fighting the front line was easily identified and restricted for woman warriors; but the enemy in Iraq didn’t get the memo; and if they did they don’t subscribe to our doctrine. The front line doesn’t exist. The fighting is everywhere. The traditional role of being in the “rear” is gone because there is no “rear” in the same way, that there is no “front line”. Today when we talk about the rear we mean the Continental United States. Improvised Explosive Devices and Rocket Propelled Grenades are equal opportunity munitions shot by equal opportunity killers making every movement from re-supply to patrol an offensive operation.


The degree to which women can and should be involved in combat may never be clearly answered. The many accounts of women in the military from the early American history fighting in the Revolution through the change in times and women fighting for the evolution of equitable military service to Operation Iraqi Freedom however, has brought with each step more equitable recognition and opportunity for service. This Memorial day, women of the military can count themselves amongst the rolls of male service members in the way that even the first woman doctor of the Army and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dr. Mary Walker could not. This Memorial Day we recognize the service and sacrifice of the women warriors of Operation Iraqi Freedom that have paid the ultimate price. There are fifty-five of them and their names are…… You may read the names, fifty five names at the time of this presentation in May 2006, current as of October 2008.

Obtained from

They, like their male counterparts gave their today so that we can have our tomorrows.

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