by Dawn Kepler, Project Administrator
The defense of our nation is a shared responsibility. Women have served in the defense of this land for years before our United States was born. They have contributed their talents, skills and courage to this endeavor for more than two centuries with an astounding record of achievement that stretches from Lexington and Concord to the Persian Gulf and beyond. – Retired U.S. Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Chief of Staff of the Army, 1991-1995
The images of nurses and women working in production are popularized as representing women’s historical contributions to war. Only in recent years (2013) has the Pentagon removed the ban on women in combat. What was forgotten is the extensive history of women fighting in American wars. The following is a snapshot of women’s contributions to the war efforts during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
It is estimated that between 400 and 1,000 women served in the Civil War disguised as men, and historians believe this number may be even higher. Evidence has been uncovered that women fought in nearly every major battle, for both the North and the South. There are records of a number of women being promoted to the ranks of captain and major, and letters written by fellow soldiers indicating, “They fought like demons.” Women were documented as being discovered in the ranks only when they were injured, sick, a prisoner of war, or gave birth. The Civil War was the last war where women could pass as men to serve in the army due to stricter entrance physical requirements established in 1872.
World War I was the first time in history American women across socioeconomic classes served in the war in some capacity, with women from the upper class strata founding and contributing to war relief organizations while middle and lower class women participated in these organizations or, more often, worked in production and as nurses. Also a first in American history, women were officially affiliated with the military, including the “Hello Girls” serving the U.S. Army Signal Corps as switchboard operators. With women’s growing contributions to war efforts, the government created various services that are all but forgotten – the Women in Industry Service within the Department of Labor and the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense – with only the Women’s Bureau left as a present day iteration of these initiatives.
During World War II, women were recruited to fill the roles and jobs traditionally held by men since they were needed in combat. However, that did not prevent women serving as military nurses from becoming some of the first prisoners of war. Initially, women were banned from positions requiring physical strength, those deemed “improper for women,” and supervisory roles. Female recruits proved their value, though, and women began serving in every position excluding direct combat: “in the motor pool, as radio operators and repairmen, gunnery instructors, mechanics, flight instructors, and in other advanced technical and scientific fields.” Women in the military predominantly served in the “forgotten” auxiliary military forces, where their services were no longer needed following the war. Of note, over 60 million miles of military flight services were logged by the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), but these female civilian volunteer pilots were required to pay for room and board, pay for their initial flight training on military aircraft, and were not given veteran status until 1977. More than 400,000 women served during World War II, 432 died, and 88 became prisoners of war.