American Women in War: Their Evolving Role

Credit: Norwich University's Online Military History Program.
Credit: Norwich University's Online Military History Program.

International Women’s Day is on March 8, celebrating and raising awareness of the strides women have made to create a more equal working world. Women have made a large impact on one workforce in particular: the U.S. military.

While there are far more men than women in the U.S. military, women have made a significant contribution, with some even serving on the front lines. In fact, figures from the Department of Defense show that the U.S. military has 71,400 active duty women. Out of these, 9,200 are currently deployed in different parts of the world, including war zones.

Even before women were allowed to join in combat, women served their country as nurses, seamstresses, and cooks. Today, American women are not just content with joining the military, they are challenging men for senior leadership positions. By the end of 2013, women accounted for 7.1% of general and flag officers actively serving in the U.S. army. This increasingly inclusive environment is due to the work of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his successor, Ashton Carter, who both rescinded rules preventing women from joining and serving in military units as well as holding military combat positions.

Through these strides for equality, the U.S. military is becoming a prime example of a more inclusive, gender equal working world. To learn more about the contributions women have made to our nation’s military, checkout the infographic below created by Norwich University’s Military History program.

Credit: Norwich University’s Online Military History Program.


American women have been playing various caretaker roles in the army since America was founded. During the revolutionary war, women served as nurses taking care of injured soldiers, and seamstresses preparing military uniforms. Women also served as cooks producing much-needed meals for the troops.

They also played a vital role during the Civil War when about 6,000 women served as nurses tending to injured federal troops. More than 400 brave women disguised as men fought alongside male soldiers on the front line in both the Confederate and Union armies. Some women rose through the ranks to occupy senior positions during those wars. Dorothea Dix not only rose through the ranks to become the superintendent of female nurses, but also the first woman to serve in a high-ranking federal position.

Women in the US Army Nurse Corps

Women also proved their military aptitude during the Spanish-American War, fought between 1898 and 1901. During this time, the US military was in dire need of highly qualified nurses to deal with a raging typhoid fever epidemic.

On April 28, 1898, US lawmakers gave congressional authority to the Surgeon General to appoint female nurses on contract. It paved the way for the appointment of Dr. Anita M. McGee as the Acting Assistant Surgeon General. She immediately began recruiting women nurses to work for the Army.

During her time as the Acting Assistant Surgeon General, Dr. McGee also drafted the bill that legally established the US Army Nurse Corps, which was later renamed Section 19 under the 1901 Army Reorganization Act. As such, more than 1,500 women joined the Army under contract and served in different parts of the world including China, Japan, the Philippine Islands, and Puerto Rico. Women also served on board floating hospitals and US soil.

Women in Military Academies

The 1970s marked a watershed moment for women in the US military when they were permitted to join senior military service academies and colleges. Nevertheless, the acceptance of women into the military’s elite and institutions did not occur overnight.

Norwich University, which is the oldest private military college in the US, allowed women to join the Corps of Cadets program in 1974. In doing so, it became a trailblazer in the fight for gender equality in the US military. The University implemented the full integration of women in its learning programs throughout the 1970s.

On October 7, 1975, the US President Gerald R. Ford signed into law a bill (Law 94-106) allowing women to join US military academies starting in the fall of 1976. It enabled women to join institutions that had been the preserve of men up until then. 119 women joined the venerated West Point military academy, and 81 women enrolled at the US Naval Academy. 157 women entered the US Air Force Academy.

Since then, more than 4,100 women have successfully graduated from West Point. In 2014, women accounted for 22% of West Point’s incoming cadets, which was an all-time high. In comparison, women accounted for just 16% of West Point enrolments in 2013. Over at the US Naval Academy, 19% of cadets who enrolled in 2015 were women showing that American women are increasingly breaking into military bastions that have traditionally been dominated by men.

Women and Military Leadership

American women are not content with just joining the US army; they are challenging men for senior leadership positions. On January 24, 2013, the then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded a decades-old rule preventing women from joining and serving in combat units. Panetta expressly required military departments to complete their reviewing policies governing the assignment of personnel to those units by January 1, 2016.

Panetta’s successor Ashton Carter took up the fight for gender equality by announcing on December 3, 2015, that military combat positions would be open to all genders starting January 2016. Until then, women were not allowed to join approximately 10% or 220,000 positions available in the US military. These proactive and gender-friendly measures have opened up more than 111,000 positions to women since 2013.

The military’s senior command includes several women who have played significant leadership roles in recent wars including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, 289,512 women or 11.8% of all military personnel were deployed to active combat zones between 2001 and 2011. Of these, 86,524 women were deployed to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is worth noting that female service members accounted for 11.4% of military personnel deployed to Iraq. Women have smashed the military’s glass ceiling although their representation is still minor compared to their male peers. By the end of 2013, women accounted for 7.1% or about 69 out of 976 general and flag officers actively serving in the US Army.


Over the last century, the role of women in the US Army has transitioned from nursing injured and sick soldiers to battlefront combat. Women who wish to pursue a military career can thank pioneers such as Dorothea Dix who wrote the bill that established the Nurse Corps and entrenchment into the US Army.

However, women were mostly consigned to lowly positions until the 1970s when military institutions such as Norwich University opened their doors to female enrollees. President Ford’s signing into law of Public Law 94-106 was a watershed moment for women as it enabled them to join previously male-dominated military institutions including West Point, US Air Force Academy, and the US Naval Academy.

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