Women have been part of military service throughout history. Their roles have ranged from supporting troops as nurses to engagement in full fledged combat. Women served as nurses, water bearers, and cooks in the American Revolution.
During the Civil War numerous women disguised themselves as men to serve in addition to serving as nurses. It is during the Civil War that Dr. Mary Walker received the Congressional Medal of Honor--the only woman to receive this honor. In 1901 the Army Nurse Corps was established and in 1908 the Navy Nurse Corps was established.
In 1920, the Army reorganization act granted military nurses the status of officers. During WWII, more than 60,000 women served stateside and overseas for the military, and female corps in the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard were established.
By 1955, men are accepted in to the Army and Air Force Nurse Corps. During the Vietnam War, women were able to enlist in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps opens to women.
Women receive promotions to unprecedented levels, including brigadier general, rear admiral, and major general. Since the end of the Vietnam War, women have continued to valiantly serve their country while changing policies and shattering stereotypes.
Women today are continuing this long history of selfless service, courage, and patriotism. This service ensures the safety of the nation. The role that women play in national security is enormous and irreplaceable, including those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for country.
Each branch of the military has a growing number of women serving in them. For profiles of some of these women, please follow the links below.
In addition to highlighting the careers of individual women, those who have received the highest military honors, The Congressional Medal of Honor (below), The Silver Star Medal, and The Purple Heart are included. For a more detailed history please see here
Congressional Medal of Honor
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest military award for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The medal is awarded by the President in the name of Congress.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to have received the Congressional Meal of Honor. She was born in upstate New York in 1832. Her father was a freethinking man and the county doctor and championed equal rights for his daughters. Mary also became an enthusiastic supporter of women's rights, particularly dress reform. In 1855 Mary graduated from Syracuse Medial College, becoming the second woman to do so in the U.S., and married a fellow physician in 1856, though the two were divorced 13 years later.
Upon the outbreak of the civil war, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker attempted to join the Union Army and was denied commission as a medical officer. She volunteered as an assistant surgeon, becoming the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. She worked primarily in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington though gained field experience on the Union front lines for almost two years.
She was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland in 1863 then for the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this latter assignment, it is generally regarded that she served as a spy for the Union when she crossed into Confederate territory to treat civilians.
She was taken prisoner by Confederate troops in 1864 and held for four months. She was released to the 52nd Ohio as a surgeon but spent most of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and nearby orphan asylum.
In 1865 President Johnson singed a bill to award Dr. Mary Edwards with the Congressional Medal of Honor, recognizing her contributions to the war, initially without commission.
In 1917 her medal, along with hundreds of others was taken away when Congress revised the standards to include only actual conflict with the enemy. She refused to give it back and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After the war she became a writer and lecturer, focusing on women's rights, particularly dress reform, health, and temperance.
In 1977, an Army board reinstated her medal, citing "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication, and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."
For more information see here