7 Influential Women in the Military
Throughout history, women have effectively served in the military, displaying outstanding leadership qualities both on and off the battlefield. In American military history, women have achieved notable accomplishments in espionage, field medicine, and combat, and the below women exemplify such significant achievements.
Elsie S. Ott
Elsie S. Ott served as a military nurse for the United States Air Force during World War II and is remembered for her significant contributions to the implementation of air evacuation procedures for military casualties. As countless individuals were being wounded during the war, Allied Forces became concerned with the removal of these wounded fighters from the battlefield in order to improve their chances of survival. Airplanes were identified as the means to evacuate wounded troops, and though she had never been on an airplane before, on January 17, 1943, Elsie Ott became the first nurse to prepare one of these air ambulances to evacuate injured soldiers. The plane she boarded was ill equipped for medical care, and the only people on board to provide medical care were Ott and another sergeant. As the flight took its long journey from Karachi, India to Washington D.C., making several stops and spanning six and a half days, Ott took notes of the experience so she could ensure that later flights would have enough information to accurately prepare the most suitable supplies. Thanks to her notes, which offered suggestions for flights to carry more emergency medical resources such as wound dressing supplies and oxygen tanks, in-flight medical care improved. Ott was commended for her actions and was also awarded the United States Air Medal for her participation.
Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. At a young age, Sampson became an indentured servant, and when released from this work at the age of 18, she immediately began seeking adventure. Sampson decided that cross-dressing as a man would allow her to satiate her craving for exploration and travel, as well as give her more perceived freedoms than the average woman would receive. She embraced the opportunity this deceptive attire offered and enlisted in the Continental Army in 1781 during the American Revolution.
While hiding her true identity, Sampson worked under the alias of Robert Shurtliff. Soon after her entry into the military, Sampson was shot in the thigh during a battle in 1782, but removed the bullet herself to help hide her identity. However, soon after this, Sampson’s true identity was discovered. General John Paterson, her commanding officer, was supportive of her actions and granted her an honorable discharge in October of 1783. In recognition of her service, Sampson was also granted a pension for her service in the military. Sampson later composed a biography, The Female Review, which covered her experiences in the war and proved to be inspirational to historians and soldiers alike.
Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Edmonds was born in December 1841. After leaving home, Edmonds disguised herself as a man and took on the name Franklin Thompson to avoid being discovered by her abusive father. Once the American Civil War started in 1861, Edmonds decided the best thing she could do to support the Union was to enlist in the military under her male alias. At the beginning of her tour of duty, Edmonds served as a hospital attendant for several months. Throughout 1862, she was assigned as a mail carrier for her regiment, a role that required lengthy trips that would often exceed 100 miles through dangerous territory.
Though Edmond’s Army regiment was not in the thick of battle very often, Edmonds was constantly saddled, relaying important messages between the Union command and the front lines. When Edmonds contracted malaria in 1863, she left her regiment to avoid her secret identity being discovered. This action led to Franklin Thompson, her alias, being charged with desertion. Edmonds later documented her experiences in her memoirs Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In 1897, one year before her death, Sarah Edmonds became the first woman to be admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic.
Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Hopper committed a significant amount of her life to serving the United States Armed Forces, and she did so exceptionally, in numerous capacities. Before entering the military, Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University, making her one of very few women to have achieved this at the time. She initially entered the military in 1943, when she joined the Naval Reserve during World War II. Due to her background in mathematics, Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University.
After the war ended, Hopper remained enlisted as a reserve officer, but pursued a professional career as a research fellow at Harvard University where she worked closely with Mark I, II, and III computers. In 1949, Hopper began working in the private sector, and in 1952 Hopper and her team created the first compiler for computer languages. Later, she was recalled to active duty in the Navy, where she was assigned to standardize the process of using computer languages for programming. Hopper remained in the Navy for 19 more years, retiring in 1986 at the age of 79. The many contributions she made to her country and the field of programming led to Hopper being awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991.
In 1999, Eileen Collins was assigned to pilot space shuttle Columbia, making her the first female space shuttle commander. Before Collins was awarded this honor, she had a highly successful career flying military aircraft. She was among the first few women to be selected for Air Force training directly after graduation from Syracuse University and completed her Air Force pilot training course in 1979. Following this, Collins became the Air Force’s first female flight instructor and taught flying at several American military bases. By 1989, Collins had acquired several advanced degrees and logged more than a thousand hours of flight time, qualifying her to later be accepted to the competitive Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Collins became the first female astronaut to pilot a space shuttle mission in 1995 and by 1997, Collins had spent 419 hours in space, making her a suitable candidate for taking command of the space shuttle Columbia. She was selected for the role and made history once the shuttle was launched. Collins is now retired from NASA and the Air Force, but she has received many honors since retiring, including an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ann E. Dunwoody
Ann Dunwoody was born to a military family in 1953 in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. During her senior year at State University of New York College at Cortland, she decided to join the U.S. Army. She later received a 2-year commission as a second lieutenant, and during her tenure in the military, Dunwoody became the first female battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division in 1992 and the first female general assigned at Fort Bragg in 2000. During her second term of service, Dunwoody received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, and many other awards. In 2008, after 33 consecutive years of service in the Unites States Army, Ann Dunwoody became the first woman to be promoted to four-star general. Dunwoody retired from the Army in 2012, and in 2015, she published her book, A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General, which discloses insights into her life and experiences as the first woman to reach such a distinguished level in the United States military.
Harriet Tubman, who is most notably known for her participation with the Underground Railroad, was also an active contributor to the Union’s war effort during the American Civil War, where she first worked as a cook and nurse for the Union Army. Tubman eventually became an armed Union scout and spy and was the first woman to ever lead an armed expedition during this war, when she led the successful Combahee River Raid. Tubman has a long legacy of saving people from persecution, and her courageous contributions to Union efforts during the Civil War earned her a place in the narrative of both the United States’ military history and the American civil rights movement.
Making noteworthy contributions to the United States military efforts can come through many avenues, as represented by the achievements of the women noted above. Their experiences and contributions have helped pave the way for women gaining greater inclusion into the U.S. Armed Forces. Military historians can use the details of these service women to help expand the public perception of the active and positive role women play in the military.
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