In honor of Memorial Day and Military Appreciation Month, Her Story of Success is looking through the history books to share more about the women of the military. In this historically male-dominated community, women are rising to the occasion and making strides to provide more opportunities for women to serve their country.
Join us on a journey that highlights just a few of the thousands of women who have impacted the U.S. military, starting with the Revolutionary War.
Disguised as a man named Robert Shurtleff, Deborah Sampson became a hero during the American Revolution when she joined the Patriot forces. Sampson was the only woman to earn the full military pension for serving in the Revolutionary Army.
Sampson and two sergeants led 30 men on an expedition that landed them in a confrontation with Tories. She led a raid on Tory home and captured 15 men. Sampson dug trenches, helped storm a British redoubt and endured cannon fire at the siege of Yorktown. Sampson’s true identity remained unknown for two years until an injury ratted her out and caused her honorable discharge in 1783.
The first known black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army, Cathay Williams enlisted using the name William Cathay on November 15, 1866. In order to enlist, she told the recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook, and the officer described her as 5’9” with black eyes and black hair.
U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women at the time, but that didn’t stop Cathay, who was enlisted after an Army surgeon determined she was fit for duty. Born into slavery, Cathay was able to maintain financial independence with the 38th U.S. Infantry.
Opha Mae Johnson
As the U.S. engaged in WWI battles, men fought on the warfront while women fought for suffrage at home. The U.S. Marine Corps enlisted its first woman during this time, with Opha Mae Johnson going into the history books as the first woman in the USMC.
Johnson worked as a civil service employee at the USMC headquarters before enlistment, and during enlistment her job consisted mainly of typing and military office work. Even though this was the job that most women held during this time, Johnson broke barriers for women to have new opportunities in the future.
U.S. Army Nurse Ruby Bradley served in two wars and survived three years as a Prisoner of War (POW). Bradley joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse in late 1934, where she served as the equivalent of a second lieutenant.
In 1940, Bradley was transferred to the Philippines for her first station outside of the U.S. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened that December, and soon after, a Japanese aircraft struck her camp. Bradley and another nurse cared for civilian refugees before being captured on December 28. Soon, a small camp hospital was set up where Bradley worked to deliver babies and save lives before being sent to an internment camp with other nurses waiting for rescue from the U.S. Army and Navy.
Nancy Harkness Love
On September 7, 1942, Nancy Harkness Love became the first female pilot in the Army Air Forces. Three days later Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced her appointment to organize and lead the “Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron” in the Air Transport Command (ATC).
During her time in the ATC, she and 27 other women pilots joined the 2nd Ferrying Group to make history as the first women pilots to fly operational missions for the U.S. armed forces. With a passionate belief in women and their pursuit of aviation, Love has been inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1943, Elsie Ott became the first woman to receive the Air Medal after serving as a pioneer in air evacuation of military casualties. As WWII progressed, the Allies became more and more concerned about what to do about wounded soldiers overseas.
Ott was the first nurse to prepare for an evacuation of the injured via “Air Ambulance” and was given 24 hour notice before she boarded an airplane for the first time in her life. Ott worked to supply and prepare the plane for her passengers, gathering blankets, sheets, pillows and a first aid kit. The plane dropped off replacement troops before loading the injured and making a successful return.
Grace Murray Hopper
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into WWII, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper decided to join the war effort. After being rejected because of her age and size, Hopper pushed back and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) at the end of 1943. Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University.
Working with developer of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator Howard Aiken (Mark I), Hopper was one of the first three modern computer “programmers” and programmed the Mark I, punched machine instructions onto tape and wrote the 561-page user manual for the electromechanical computer.
As a child, Eileen Collins dreamed of going to space and becoming a pilot. As an adult, those childhood dreams came true, as she was the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle. Collins graduated from the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base in 1979 and was selected for the astronaut program in 1990 while attending the Air Force Test Pilot School.
Collins became an astronaut in July 1991 and was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle in early 1995. 1n 1999, Collins became the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission before retiring from NASA in 2006.
Ann E. Dunwoody
Becoming a four-star general is difficult in the military, and Ann E. Dunwoody proved that a woman can run with the men when she was the first woman to receive the high status. In 2008, Dunwoody was promoted to four-star general in the U.S. Army after 33 years of service.
During her time in the Army, Dunwoody became the first female battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division in 1992 and the first female general at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 2000. Dunwoody was decorated a number of times, including the Distinguished Service Medal and Defense Superior Service Medal. After retiring from the military in 2012, she published a book “A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General.”