WASHINGTON, March 22, 2017 — The selection of the 2017 Women’s History Month theme, “Honoring Trailblazing Women,” falls in perfect harmony with the centennial anniversary of the first enlisted woman to enter into military service. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and the Veteran Affairs Center for Women Veterans co-hosted an event at the Women in Military Service for American Memorial yesterday, celebrating the historic enlistment of Loretta P. Walsh, March 21, 1917, exactly 100 years ago to the day.
In the spring of 1917, the United States began preparing for the inevitability of war. However, men were not enlisting in sufficient numbers. On March 19, 1917, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels determined that women could be enrolled in the U.S. Naval Reserve Force and issued an order authorizing their enlistment.
A few days later, permission was granted to enlist one woman, with the idea that the enlistment of a woman might prompt young men to enlist.
Loretta Walsh was asked if she would enlist in the Naval Reserve Force as a chief yeoman. She immediately agreed. On March 21, 1917, after procuring and modifying a male chief petty officer’s uniform, Loretta Walsh made history by enlisting in the Naval Reserve — the first woman to officially enlist in the military.
She became the first of more than 12,000 women to serve in the military during the war.
Walsh’s enlistment was covered by newspapers across the nation. Reporters were told of the necessity to enlist women because not enough men were signing up. The ploy worked, and over the following days, before the declaration of war, the enlistment of men and women dramatically increased.
Although women served previously in the Army and Navy as military nurses, they did so without rank. For the first time, women who were not nurses were allowed to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. A handful of women also served in the Coast Guard. Negative public opinion and hesitant military leaders limited women’s roles, but the country needed their skills to pursue the war effort and to move male soldiers out of office jobs and onto the battlefield.
‘Eye-Watering’ Progress by Women
At yesterday’s event, Kayla Williams, director of the Veteran Affairs Center for Women Veterans said, "As a prior enlisted service member, I’m thrilled to participate in this anniversary celebration. That the centennial takes place during women’s history month is particularly fitting — our legacy of military service is a vital part of the history of women in America."
"It is eye watering to see how far the enlisted female sailor has come over the past 100 years," said U.S. Pacific Fleet Master Chief Susan Whitman. "From traditional female roles to female sailors working in non-traditional rates such as, nuclear-power electronics technicians, Navy divers, aircrewman, master-at-arms, aviation rescue swimmers, builders, explosive ordnance technicians, submarines and special warfare. The future holds no barriers and now the sky is truly the limit!"
Retired fleet master chief of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, JoAnn Ortloff, a DACOWITS member, sought to encourage junior enlisted personnel in the audience, noting, "Don’t wait for things to happen to you — make them happen for you. You own your destiny! Encourage those around you to do the same. If we don’t, then we will be stuck in time — imagine never having a cell phone or a passenger plane or even women in the services if we didn’t."
New Gallery Exhibit
The Women’s Memorial, in collaboration with DACOWITS and the Center for Women Veterans, opened a photo exhibit titled “Celebrating the First Enlisted Women.” The exhibit was unveiled during today’s event. The exhibit outlines the history that led to women serving during World War I, highlights the first women who served in the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps, and provides additional information on when enlisted women first entered the Army and Air Force.
The exhibit also highlights a quote by then Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, “It does not say … anywhere that yeoman must be a man.” His interpretation of the law restricting women from enlistment served as the catalyst for women’s military service.