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.mil. “Red dust covered their rooms during the dry season, and rain soaked them during the wet season.”
- By the end of 2004, 19 servicewomen were killed during the Iraq War. Team Lioness, featured in the documentary Lioness, was organized to search and soothe Muslim women in accordance with cultural customs. “These women in Ramadi would become the first to engage in offensive ground combat operations in this country’s history,” said Lory Manning, Director of Women in the Military Project, in an interview for Lioness. Continue reading