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Women who broke barriers throughout military history

  • Women who broke barriers throughout U.S. military history

    The U.S. military's demographics over the years have become increasingly representative of the American population. Yet gender demographics in the armed services continue to be unequal, with women today representing just 16% of enlisted forces, according to Pew. That statistic is largely due to centuries of laws and regulations that kept women from performing many roles and duties. Consider that women couldn't fly in combat missions until 1991, didn't have access to all combat roles until 2015, and that the first woman to be deemed submarine-qualified did so in 2016. Despite these obstacles, American women have pushed to find ways (at times, creatively) to serve their country since the Revolutionary War.

    To showcase their patriotism and sacrifice, Stacker compiled a list of 30 women who broke barriers throughout U.S. military history based on historical sources, news outlets, and various branches’ press releases. The achievements of these women span all branches of the military—from land to air to sea—and more than two centuries. Many of these breakthroughs, moreover, transcended military service: Several women earned historic promotions in rank, and thus noteworthy leadership roles supervising cadets or commanding troops; others won nationally renowned distinction such as the Purple Heart and Silver Star for their combat bravery, valor, and performance.

    The list is in chronological order, starting with an 18th-century hero and ending with women setting records in the present day. From women who pretended to be men so they could serve during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the first female four-star general in the U.S., here are 30 women who broke through the glass ceiling of the U.S. military.

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  • 1782: Deborah Sampson

    Deborah Sampson was one of several documented women who fought in the Revolutionary War. Sampson disguised herself as a man and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shirtliff. She closely guarded her secret, even removing a pistol ball from her own thigh to avoid detection by medics. Her true identity wasn't discovered until she fell ill during an epidemic more than a year into her service and received medical care. Later, the Massachusetts legislature granted Sampson a pension, stating she had "exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism.”

  • 1856: Sarah Emma Edmonds

    Under the male alias of Franklin Flint Thompson, Sarah Emma Edmonds served during the Civil War. Thompson was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. in 1856 to escape a forced marriage and abusive father. Stateside, she enlisted as a male field nurse in the Union Army. She also allegedly worked as a spy who successfully infiltrated the Confederate Army.


  • 1865: Mary Edwards Walker

    Mary Edwards Walker became the first woman surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War. She was captured in 1864 by Confederates and was held as a prisoner of war for four months. Upon her return, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker with the Medal of Honor in 1865—the military's highest distinction. To this day, Walker is the only woman to have ever received this medal.


  • 1866: Cathay Williams

    Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. military. Using the pseudonym William Cathay, she pretended to be a man and successfully served as a Buffalo Soldier until she revealed her true identity in 1868.


  • 1917: Loretta Perfectus Walsh

    Although women had worked as civilian nurses in the Navy during World War I, they were banned from other positions. That changed in 1917, when Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to enlist in the Naval Reserves. She was sworn in just one month before the United States declared war on Germany. Newspapers around the U.S. covered the breaking news, which led to heightened enlistment numbers that helped bolster the military during the conclusion of World War I.

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  • 1918: Opha May Johnson

    Opha May Johnson became the first female in the United States Marine Corps in 1918. Little is known about her time in the corps, but historians do know she served with 300 other women during World War I. Their role? To resume office jobs at Marine Corps headquarters for men who would be shipping out to France. The patronizing nickname for these women—"Marinettes"—was dropped by World War II as respect for their vital role grew.


  • 1942: Lt. Annie G. Fox

    In 1942, Lt. Annie G. Fox became the first woman in U.S. history to be awarded a Purple Heart. Fox helped care for the wounded as chief nurse at Hickam Field during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Fox was not injured, but nevertheless received the Purple Heart for her "singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.”


  • 1942: Dorothy Tuttle

    Dorothy Tuttle was the first-ever recruit to join the SPARs, otherwise known as the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves. Women in this organization served the U.S. military by taking over office duties for men needed elsewhere during World War II.


  • 1943: Lt. Elsie S. Ott

    Lt. Elsie S. Ott was assigned as flight nurse to bring five very ill patients from India to Washington D.C. during World War II in what was the first intercontinental aeromedical evacuation. At the time, Ott had never flown in an airplane and was without any evacuation training. Ott successfully brought home the patients, and in so doing earned the distinction of being the first woman in U.S. history to receive the Air Medal.


  • 1948: Esther Blake

    On July 8, 1948, Esther Blake became the first woman to join the United States Air Force. The widowed mother of two sons (both serving), enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 to help end the war after her oldest son was shot down in service while flying a B-17 and reported missing. Her efforts only increased after that. Although women weren't allowed to fight, Blake enthusiastically took on office jobs in order to relieve men so they could enter combat positions. Both of her sons were eventually found and returned home safely—meanwhile, Blake continued to serve in the Air Force until 1954.

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