Women servicemembers fought for right to fight

28 Feb 2001 | Sgt. Andrew D. Pomykal

Although many believe that women servicemembers traditionally have been used in mostly administrative billets, nothing could be further from the truth. Women have been serving this nation for years in some very dangerous positions.

In 1948, the doors finally opened for women to officially join the active ranks of the U.S.
Armed Forces. Before then, they served in unofficial capacities or in the Reserves.

To date, there are almost 2 million female, American veterans.  From the American Revolution to Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo, women have served in some way in every conflict this country has faced.

More than 33,000 women served in World War I and almost 500,000 took part in World War II.  During the Korean era, 120,000 women were in uniform and 7,000 were deployed during the Vietnam conflict. 

During Operation Desert Storm, 7 percent of the total U.S. forces deployed were women - more than 50,000 personnel.

Throughout history, one of the many ways women aided their country was by spying on enemies abroad and at home.

In the early days of the American Revolution, many Philadelphian women passed key information along to Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge.

Ann Trotter Bailey carried messages across enemy territory in 1774, and Sarah Bradlee Fulton, also known as the "Mother of the Boston Tea Party," delivered dispatches too.

Emily George rode 50 miles through British territory to deliver a message to Gen. Thomas Sumter during the U.S. War of Independence.

As early as 1811, Navy surgeons recommended that nurses be included among personnel at Navy Hospitals. United States ships' logs reflect women serving aboard as nurses the next year.

Nancy Hart served as a Confederate scout, guide and spy during the Civil War. Her mission was to carry messages between the southern Armies.  She also visited isolated federal outposts. Acting as a peddler, she reported strength, population, and vulnerabilities to Gen. Andrew Jackson.

When Hart was 20, the Yankees captured her. During her incarceration, she gained the trust of one of her guards, took his weapon, shot him and escaped.

Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart employed female spies knowing the Yankees would not execute women.

During WWII, the motto, "Free a man to fight," spurned women to drop their dish rags, pick up tools and help produce commodities needed for war. Thousands worked in factories building airplanes and tanks, while others sewed uniforms for front-line troops.

Though women did not officially begin serving this country until June 12, 1948, women have been serving on both sides of enemy lines for as long as there have been conflicts.  They have selflessly served their country's cause and put themselves in harms way in support of their patriotic beliefs. 

The Women's Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 625) gave American women the right to serve on active duty, but thousands of women prior to the Act, paved the way through their prowess and tenacity.

Editor's note: The factual information in this story was gleaned from several women's history websites.

Side Bar -- During World War II, Virginia Hall, a young woman from Baltimore, worked for the French as an agent and was so successful that the Nazis began an all-out hunt for her.

The German Gestapo despised Hall.  They circulated a wanted poster with the warning, "The woman with the limp is the most valuable Allied agent in France and must be found and killed."

By the winter of 1941, the Nazis were about to arrest her, but she escaped on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. This was no easy task for Hall, who had a wooden leg due to a hunting accident.

After her escape, she trained as a radio operator and transferred to the office of Strategic Studies, America's first National Intelligence Agency. In November 1943, she returned to France disguised as an elderly, milk maid to fool the Germans and resumed her espionage duties. She also painstakingly taught herself to walk without a limp to avoid detection. Virginia's actions allowed her to collect and send valuable intelligence and coordinate air drops in support of D-Day.

Editor's note: The factual information in this story was gleaned from several women's history websites.