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This article is about the role played by women in the military in the Americas, particularly in the United States and Canada from the First World War to modern times.

Canada[edit | edit source]

File:CWAC mechanic.jpg

Private Lowry, CWAC, tightening up the springs on the front of her vehicle, Chelsea & Cricklewood Garage, England, 7 July 1944.

Female Canadian Forces pilot

During the First World War, over 2,300 women served overseas in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Canadian women were also organized into possible uniformed home guard units, undertaking military training in paramilitary groups. During the Second World War, 5,000 women of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps again served overseas, however they were not permitted to serve on combat warships or in combat teams. The Canadian Army Women's Corps was created during the Second World War, as was the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division). As well, 45,000 women served as support staff in every theatre of the conflict, driving heavy equipment, rigging parachutes, and performing clerical work, telephone operation, laundry duties and cooking. Some 5,000 women performed similar occupations during Canada’s part in the Korean War of 1950-1953.

In 1965 the Canadian government decided to allow a maximum of 1,500 women to serve directly in all three branches of its armed forces, and the former "women's services" were disbanded. In 1970 the government created a set of rules for the armed forces designed to encourage equal opportunities. These included the standardization of enlistment criteria, equal pay and pensions, and allowing women to enroll in all aspects of the Canadian armed forces and making it possible for women to reach any rank. In 1974 the first woman, Major Wendy Clay, earned her pilot's wings in the newly integrated Canadian Forces, and four years later the first woman qualified for the Canadian skydiving demonstration team, the Skyhawks.

Between 1979 and 1985 the role of women expanded further, with military colleges allowing women to enroll. 1981 saw the first female navigator and helicopter pilot, and in 1982 laws were passed ending all discrimination in employment, and combat related roles in the Canadian armed forces were opened for women, with no restrictions in place, with the exception of the submarine service. In 1986 further laws were created to the same effect. The following years saw Canada’s first female infantry soldier, first female gunner, and a female Brigadier-General.

In 1990 the Ministers Advisory Board on Women in the Canadian Forces was created, and in 1994 Wendy Clay was promoted to Major-General. In 2000 Major Micky Colton became the first female to log 5,000 flying hours in a C-130 Hercules. Women were permitted to serve on board Canadian submarines in 2002 with the acquisition of the Victoria-class submarine. Master Seaman Colleen Beattie became the first female submariner in 2003.

Canadian women have also become clearance divers, and commanded large infantry units and Canadian warships.

On May 17, 2006 Captain Nichola Goddard became the first Canadian woman killed in combat during operations in Afghanistan.

United States[edit | edit source]


Two female American soldiers

The first American woman soldier was Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts. She enlisted as a Continental Army soldier under the name of "Robert Shurtliff". She served for three years in the Revolutionary War and was wounded twice; she cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so no doctor would find out she was a woman. Finally, at the end of the hostilities her secret was discovered—even so, George Washington gave her an honorable discharge. She later lectured on her experiences and became a champion of women's rights.

During the American Civil War, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted under the alias of Private Lyons Wakeman. She served in the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Her complete letters describing her experiences as a female soldier in the Union Army are reproduced in the book, An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864.[1]

In the history of women in the military, there are records of female U.S. Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers who enlisted using male pseudonyms, but a letter written by Annie Oakley to President William McKinley on on April 5, 1898 may represent the earliest documentary proof of a political move towards recognizing a woman's right to serve in the United States military. Annie Oakley, Sharpshooter and star in the Buffalo Bill Show, wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898 "offering the government the services of a company of 50 'lady sharpshooters' who would provide their own arms and ammunition should war break out with Spain.".[2] The Spanish-American War did occur, but Oakley's offer was not accepted.

The Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps was established in the United States in 1941. However, political pressures stalled the waylaid attempts to create more roles for women in the American Armed Forces. Women saw combat during World War II, first as nurses in the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941. The Woman’s Naval Reserve and Marine Corps Women’s Reserve were also created during this conflict. In July 1943 a bill was signed removing ‘auxiliary’ from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, making it an official part of the regular army. In 1944 WACs arrived in the Pacific and landed in Normandy on D-Day. During the war, 67 Army nurses and 16 Navy nurses were captured and spent three years as Japanese prisoners of war. There were 350,000 American women who served during World War Two and 16 were killed in action; in total, they gained over 1,500 medals, citations and commendations.

Virginia Hall, serving with the Office of Strategic Services, received the second-highest US combat award, the Distinguished Service Cross, for action behind enemy lines in France. Hall, who had one artificial leg, landed clandestinely in occupied territory aboard a British Motor Torpedo Boat.

After World War Two, demobilization led to the vast majority of serving women being returned to civilian life. Law 625, The Women's Armed Services Act of 1948, was signed by President Truman, allowing women to serve in the armed forces in fully integrated units during peace time, with only the WAC remaining a separate female unit. During the Korean War of 1950–1953 many women served in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, with women serving in Korea numbering 120,000 during the conflict.

Airman 1st Class, Ashley Gonzalez of the United States Air force.

Records regarding American women serving in the Vietnam War are vague. However, it is recorded that 600 women served in the country as part of the Air Force, along with 500 members of the WAC, and over 6,000 medical personnel and support staff.

The Ordnance Corps began accepting female missile technicians in 1974,[3] and female crewmembers and officers were accepted into Field Artillery missile units.[4][5]

In 1974, the first six women aviators earned their wings as Navy pilots: Jane Skiles O'Dea, Barbara Allen Rainey, Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Judith Ann Neuffer, Ana Marie Fuqua, and Joellen Drag Oslund. The Congressionally mandated prohibition on women in combat places limitations on the pilots' advancement,[6] but at least two retired as captains.[7]

America’s involvement in Grenada in 1983 saw over 200 women serving; however, none of these took part in direct combat. Some women, such as Lt Col Eileen Collins or Lt Celeste Hayes, flew transport aircraft carrying wounded or assault teams, however they were not deemed to have been in direct combat. Several hundred women also took part in operations in Panama in 1989, though again in non-combat roles.

December 20, 1989, Capt Linda L. Bray, 29, became the first woman to command American soldiers in battle, during the invasion of Panama. She was assigned to lead a force of 30 men and women MPs to capture a kennel holding guard dogs that was defended by elements of the Panamanian Defense force. From a command center about a half-mile from the kennel she ordered her troops to fire warning shots. The Panamanians returned fire until threatened by artillery attack, fleeing into nearby woods. Bray advanced to the kennel to try to stop them, using the cover of a ditch to reach the building. No enemy dead were found, but a cache of weapons was recovered.

The 1991 Gulf War proved to be the pivotal time for the role of women in the American Armed forces to come to the attention of the world media. A senior woman pilot at the time, Colonel Kelly Hamilton, commented that "[t]he conflict was an awakening for the people in the US. They suddenly realised there were a lot of women in the military." Over 40,000 women served in almost every role the armed forces had to offer. However, while many came under fire, they were not permitted to participate in deliberate ground engagements. Despite this, there are many reports of women engaging enemy forces during the conflict [1].

From 2005, the first all female C-130 Hercules crew to serve a combat mission for the U.S. Air Force.[8]

Today, women can serve on American combat ships, including in command roles. They are permitted to serve on submarines.[9] They are not permitted to participate in special forces programs such as Navy SEALs. Women enlisted soldiers are barred from serving in Infantry, Special Forces, however female enlisted members and officers can hold staff positions in every branch of the Army except infantry and armor. Women can however serve on the staffs of infantry and armor units at Division level and above, and be members of Special Operations Forces. Women can fly military aircraft and make up 2% of all pilots in the U.S. Military. Although Army regulations ban women from infantry assignments, some females are detailed to accompany male infantry units to handle searches of Iraqi women.

Jessica Lynch after being rescued in 2003

The case United States v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ordered that the Virginia Military Institute allow women to register as cadets, gave women soldiers a weapon against laws which (quoting J. Ruth Bader Ginsburg) “[deny] to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature—equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

In 2003, American soldier Jessica Lynch was captured while serving in Iraq. When surrounded by Iraqi soldiers, she attempted to defend herself, but her M-16 jammed. In the same action, Lori Piestewa, a U.S. soldier, died after driving her Humvee through enemy fire in an attempt to escape an ambush, earning a Purple Heart. She had just rescued Jessica Lynch, whose vehicle had crashed.

Also in 2003, Major Kim Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for landing her combat damaged A-10 Thunderbolt II with no hydraulic control and only one functional engine after being struck by hostile fire over Baghdad.

In a recent scandal, U.S Army Reservists Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman were convicted by court martial of cruelty and maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

SGT Leigh Ann Hester, awarded the Silver Star for direct combat

SGT Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to receive the Silver Star, the third-highest US decoration for valor, for direct participation in combat. Female medical personnel had been awarded the same medal, but not for actual combat. She was a team leader of Raven 42, a Military Police squad that broke up an ambush roughly three to four times its strength. Specialist Ashley Pullen received the Bronze Star. The squad leader, SSG Timothy Nein, had originally received the Silver Star, but his award was later upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. SGT Jason Mike, the unit's medic, also received the Silver Star.

In Afghanistan, Monica Lin Brown, was presented the Silver Star for shielding wounded soldiers with her body, and then treating life-threatening injuries.[10] As of March 2012, the U.S. military has two women, Ann E. Dunwoody and Janet C. Wolfenbarger, with the rank of four-star general.[11][12]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta, and Lauren M. Cook. 1994. An uncommon soldier the Civil War letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Pasadena, Md: The Minerva Center.
  2. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). "Letter to President William McKinley from Annie Oakley" Retrieved January 24, 2008. http://www.archives.gov/research/recover/example-02.html
  3. "The Women of Redstone Arsenal". United States Army. http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/women_chron/chron1970s.html. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  4. Busse, Charlane (July 1978). "First women join Pershing training". United States Army Field Artillery School. p. 40. http://sill-www.army.mil/famag/1978/JUL_AUG_1978/JUL_AUG_1978_PAGES_40_43.pdf. Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  5. "The Journal interviews: 1LT Elizabeth A. Tourville". United States Army Field Artillery School. November 1978. pp. 40–43. http://sill-www.army.mil/FAMAG/1978/JUL_AUG_1978/JUL_AUG_1978_PAGES_40_43.pdf. Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  6. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19840823&id=kdgTAAAAIBAJ&sjid=iwYEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6981,4703933%7COcala Star-Banner August 23, 1984.
  7. http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/1990s/1997/mj97/ppp.pdf%7CNaval Aviation News, May–June 1997.
  8. Johnson, Michael G. (2005-09-27). "First All-female Crew Flies Combat Mission". DefendAmerica.mil. United States Department of Defense. http://www.defendamerica.mil/articles/sep2005/a092705wm3.html. Retrieved 2006-07-02. 
  9. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/29/us-navy-submarines-women US navy lifts ban on women submariners (The Guardian (UK), 29 April 2010).
  10. Clare, Micah E. (March 24, 2008). "Face of Defense: Woman Soldier Receives Silver Star". http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=49348. 
  11. Military's First Female Four-Star General
  12. http://militarytimes.com/blogs/offduty-plus/2012/03/28/wolfenbarger-confirmed-as-1st-female-af-4-star/

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