What was the role of military women throughout US history? Women were formally allowed to serve in the military without a clause in 1948. It was a big step for women but there were still a number of stipulations as part of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act. The Act also established a 2% cap on women in the service, limited promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Commander, and also prohibited women from serving aboard combat ships and aircraft. Women were allowed to serve, but the goal was to keep them suppressed and limited. But it was a crack in the door we needed to start making change.
And by 1970 women had proven their worth.
The first woman to reach the rank of Brigadier General was Anne Mae Hays. A veteran of World War II and Korea, she served as the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. I had the chance to interview retired Brig Gen Wilma Vaught for the Women of the Military Podcast. The first woman to achieve the rank of Brigadier General in the Comptroller career field on September 6, 1980. And I even fell into the trap of what to expect when I interviewed Gen Vaught. I thought the first woman to make General in Comptroller. She must have been tough and ruthless. But the reality was the reason she gained rank wasn’t because of how ruthless she was, but actually of her work ethic and how much she cared for the people who worked for her.
She talked about when she would arrive at a new unit the same thing would happen.
People would find out that a woman was going to be their commander and they would ask to be transferred to a new unit. And then after a few months of arriving they would come to her and say, I wanted to be transferred out of this unit when I found out a woman was going to be my commander, but I would follow you anywhere.
How did she get these men to change their minds about having a woman in leadership? Was it because she was ruthless? No, it was because she came in saw that the Airmen were not being taken care of. Enlisted Performance Reports overdue, awards not submitted, early promotions ignored. She would get to work on not only taking care of the responsibilities of leading the squadron but also of taking care of the people in her unit.
While in the service I felt pushed to be someone I wasn’t.
Me a shy, quiet, introvert was pushed to be a loud, outspoken, extrovert. And it was easier to pretend that was who I was. In uniform, I stood taller, ignored things that made me uncomfortable, and just tried to blend in while standing out with my blond bun always present. It was a double standard that became normal. It didn’t even phase me when I had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to prove myself. I knew it was what was required of me.
But in the military, I felt respected by my peers and it wasn’t until I left the military, and my service not only felt forgotten, but I still found myself having to prove my worth. I would be questioned if I was actually a veteran and not a spouse. I would have to explain that yes, I served, but even then that wasn’t good enough.
Well did you actually deploy?
Did you actually do this or that? It was a double standard that I found offensive because it was. And had I not deployed on an Army combat deployment in 2010 maybe I would have stopped raising my hand and let my service go unknown. Instead, I felt emboldened to speak up even more. To share more stories. Because people needed to know what we had done and what we were doing today.
I have to speak up because the more I dive into the history of military women. The more I learn about the sacrifice and grit of military women. We have answered our nation’s call long before 1948 and continue to say yes to what is asked of us. Even if the laws written still have not been updated to reflect the work we do.
In 2016, women were formally allowed to serving in combat. I served in 2010 attached to an Infantry unit. The same unit I by law could not be in, but still was allowed to run convoys within Afghanistan. And this law has led the general public to believe that we were somehow protected from the front lines for years. When since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) women have been on the front lines. Right next to their brothers.
And where we will always be like our sisters. Military women throughout US History answering the call.