August 26th marks Women’s Equality Day, the date in 1920 when the 19th Amendment became ratified as part of the United States Constitution. It was a long and arduous journey for women to gain the right to vote — more than seven decades in the making — starting with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where the women’s suffrage movement began, according to records from the National Archives.
As American women fought for the right to vote, they also sought a more active role in serving their country by joining the U.S. Armed Forces. While history shows that women were involved in many of the country’s wars performing various duties such as laundresses, cooks and nurses — even acting as spies and soldiers in some instances — they were not permitted to join the military outright.
Several women got around this inconvenience by dressing as men, according to the Task & Purpose website.
Women, such as Deborah Sampson, who served 17 months in Gen. George Washington’s army as “Robert Shurtleff’ before being injured in battle and subsequently discovered; Elizabeth Newcom, who became “Bill Newcom” during the Mexican War; and Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as “William Cathay” and was the first and only documented African American woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier in the U.S. Army. Or Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a progressive woman who utterly thwarted the conventions of the time by wearing men’s clothing and served as a physician and surgeon to Union troops — without pretending to be a man. She was eventually captured by Confederate forces and held as a prisoner of war for spying. Walker received a Medal of Honor for her bravery; as of 2017, she is still the only woman who has the distinction of receiving this honor, according to National Archives records.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, the Army Nurse Corps was created, and in 1908, Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Like the women who served aboard USS Red Rover (the Navy’s only hospital ship from the time of the Civil War to the Spanish American War), the “Sacred Twenty,” as the nurses were called, were not included as part of the ranks of the U.S. Navy.
Less than 10 years later, World War I would create a shortage of men to fill crucial Navy billets such as draftsman, interpreter, courier and translator. On March 17, 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the Navy would enlist women with the rating Yeoman (F) (also known as "Yeomanettes"), according to Navy News Service. That same month, Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Not only was she the first Yeoman (F), she was also the first woman to become a chief petty officer.
Most Yeomanettes were stationed in Washington D.C. during World War I, and as the war continued, the presence of women in the Navy grew. According to NHHC, the Navy also enlisted 24 African American women, all of whom worked in the Navy Department building.
As always, the role of nurse was a critical one. Navy nurses treated patients in hospitals in the U.S., overseas and on hospital ships during World War I. Second Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, who got her start as one of the Sacred Twenty, became the first woman to receive a Navy Cross. The World War II era destroyer USS Higbee (DD 806) was named for her, and in 2016, then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the future Arleigh-Burke class destroyer Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) will also bear her name, according to Navy News Service.
Women were not permitted to serve in the armed forces during peacetime, so it wasn’t until World War II that their services were called upon again. According to NHHC, more than 11,000 Navy nurses served at naval shore commands, on hospital ships, at field hospitals, in airplanes, and on 12 hospital ships. Heroes emerged in the form of the Navy Nurse Corps' Lt. Ann Bernatitus, who escaped from the Philippines just before the Japanese invaded and later became the first woman to receive the Legion of Merit award.
In 1944, members of the Navy Nurse Corps were granted full military rank by Public Law 238. Sue Dauser, director of the Navy Nurse Corps, became the first woman to receive a full commission in the rank of captain.
Women filled in the gaps left by men who had gone off to war and then some. Several opportunities to serve in the armed forces were created, among them the Women’s Naval Reserve, better known as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).
The Women’s Naval Reserve was signed into law July 30, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Joining the WAVES meant opportunity — women could not only serve as officers, they could expand their horizons beyond clerical work and into fields such as intelligence, air traffic control, truck driving, mechanics, parachute rigging, meteorology and physiotherapy. Women also served as laboratory technicians, X-ray technicians, decoders, interpreters and cooks, and many WAVES became instructors in navigation and aviation gunnery, according to All Hands Magazine.
Many extraordinary women served as WAVES, among them Joy Bright Hancock, who had worked as a civilian for the Bureau of Aeronautics after serving as a Yeoman (F) during World War I. Almost a third of all WAVES would serve in BuAer during World War II, and after she was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1942, Hancock “leveraged longtime relationships with BuAer admirals to open up more ratings for women,” according to All Hands Magazine. In 1948, Hancock became one of the first women commissioned in the regular Navy.
The “Grand Lady of Software” Grace Murray Hopper, who joined the WAVES in 1943 and worked as a programmer for the Harvard Mark I computer, was a pioneer in the field of computer science and co-inventor of COBOL, according to NHHC. She retired as a rear admiral at age 79, and the USS Hopper (DDG 70) is named in her honor.
In December 1944, Lt. (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills were commissioned as the Navy’s first African American WAVES officers, according to NHHC.
Approximately 70 African American women enlisted as WAVES during WWII, and Edna Young Nash was among those ranks. After becoming one of the first WAVES to be sworn into the regular Navy, she later became the first African-American female chief, according to All Hands Magazine.
By the end of World War II, the WAVES had become a large part of the Navy, numbering more than 8,000 officers and 80,000 enlisted Sailors. It wasn’t until 1948 that Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act — which then Director of WAVES, Capt. Joy Bright Hancock, helped to write — allowing women to serve as permanent members of the military. (Non-nurse Navy women continued to be referred to as WAVES until 1972.)
After the flurry of World War II’s expansion to include women, things didn’t really pick up steam again until 1967, when Congress passed Public Law 90-130, ending restrictions on the number of women who could serve in the military. The number of women allowed to serve had previously been capped at two percent, according to All Hands Magazine. This law also ended rank limitations and allowed women to be promoted to flag officer rank.
In 1972, then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt increased opportunities for officer and enlisted women and announced an ultimate goal of assigning women to ships at sea, according to All Hands Magazine. In 1976, women were permitted entrance to four of the five service academies, including the U.S. Naval Academy, and in 1978, women were given the go-ahead to serve on the Navy’s non-combat ships.
In the early 1990s, Congress began authorizing women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships, according to Task & Purpose.
More than 2,600 Navy women participated in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991, according to Navy News Service. Women served on hospital ships, supply ships, fleet oilers, ammunition ships, repair ships, and tenders, and also flew helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft. In 1998, Capt. Kathleen McGrath became the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship, the frigate USS Jarrett (FFG 33).
In 2010, Vice Adm. Nora Tyson became the first woman to take command of a Carrier Strike Group (George H.W. Bush); she was a rear admiral at the time, according to Navy News Service. She has served as Commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet since 2015.
In February 2010, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates formally notified Congress of the Department of Navy's desire to reverse current policy of prohibiting submarine service to women, according to Navy News Service. The following year, eight officers from the U.S. Naval Academy, Reserve Officer Training Corps, and Officer Candidate School commissioning programs were selected to become the first women to serve aboard U.S. Navy submarines. In 2012, three female officers became the first to receive their submarine "dolphins." Based on the program’s success, the opportunity was extended to enlisted women in 2015.
On July 1, 2014, Michelle Howard, the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy, became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of four-star admiral during a ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, according to Navy News Service. Adm. Howard currently serves as Commander, Allied Joint Force Command Naples, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Africa. Upon her four-star promotion Howard initially served as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
In January 2016, all combat jobs were opened to women, and in 2017, the U.S. Marine Corps saw three women become Infantry Marines, according to Navy News Service. The Navy has yet to welcome a woman to the ranks of Special Warfare, but as history has demonstrated, it’s only a matter of time.
"Women throughout our history have endeavored to serve the flag, not looking for special treatment, prestigious awards or financial wealth, but merely for the opportunity to serve the flag itself and the great nation it represents."
— Adm. Michelle Howard
Women have long had the desire and ambition to serve their country by joining the armed forces. Now, opportunity has knocked and the door is wide open, thanks to those who have paved the way.