American Women in War: Their Evolving Role

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environment is due to the work of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his successor, Ashton Carter, who both rescinded rules preventing women from joining and serving in military units as well as holding military combat positions.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.