American women were not officially allowed to serve in the military until 1948, but female soldiers were fighting for their country long before the mid-20th century.
A new book has revealed the extraordinary history of women in uniform and shows how they carried out vital roles as cooks, laundresses, spies, and went into combat undercover for centuries.
It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, tells how girls as young as 12 had dressed in men’s clothing to fight in the Revolutionary War, while others charged onto the battlefield while pregnant.
Authors Jerri Bell, a retired naval officer and journalist, Tracy Crow a former Marine Corps officer and author, and Kaya Williams, a former intelligence specialist, went through hundreds of military women’s memoirs, personal essays, diaries, letters, pension depositions and interviews.
Extraordinary memoirs and letters of female veterans reveal how women fought on the front lines disguised as men to protect their country.
Pictured: Loreta Janeta Velazquez (left) dressed and posed as a lieutenant called Harry T Buford (right) during the Civil War
Women working as nurses proved to be just as brave as men as they risked their lives running out to carry injured soldiers on stretchers with shells exploding all around them.
However, the voices of America’s female veterans rarely made it into print and never with the same level of publicity or critical acclaim as their male counterparts.
According to the book, men sometimes took the credit for the bravery of women, and women’s commitment to their country has often been ‘overlooked, ignored, or dismissed as unimportant’.
As Williams puts it: ‘Each war (women) served in was also another battle to prove our worth and the legitimacy of our contributions’.
REVOLUTIONARY WAR: HOW HEROINES OF INDEPENDENCE ‘ASSUMED THE DRESS OF WARRIORS’
Since the beginning of American history women made up groups of irregular fighters who played a key role in defending the nation.
According to one estimate 20,000 women were part of the Continental Army which fought against the British between 1775 and 1783.
They served mostly in local defensive operations and typical of them was Prudence Cummings Wright.
Revolutionary: Deborah Sampson Gannett was a member of the Continental Army and enlisted in 1782 under the name Robert Shurtliffe
The 35-year-old mother of six from Pepperell, Massachusetts recruited around 40 women to guard a local bridge, dressing as men and capturing British couriers who they turned over to their side.
Margaret Corbin, a military nurse, replaced her husband at his cannon when he was killed in the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776.
She continued to fire until her position was overrun by the British even after she had been hit in the jaw by three musket balls and grapeshot.
Corbin was captured and eventually released, and Congress awarded her a military disability pension in 1779, the first woman to get one.
Sarah Osborn was married to a commissary guard in the Continental Army and accompanied him to the front lines as well.
In a deposition to apply for a widow’s pension she said that she once General Washington who asked her if she was ‘not afraid of the cannonballs’.
She replied: ‘No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows – it would not do for the men to fight and starve too.’
Deborah Sampson Gannett was another member of the Continental Army and was the first women to tell the story of her military service to a public audience.
She revealed she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in 1782 under the name Robert Shurtliffe.
Resilience: During the Battle of Fort Washington (pictured) Margaret Corbin, a military nurse, replaced her husband at his cannon after he was killed.
She continued firing even after she was shot in the jaw by three musket balls and grapeshot
Gannett was discharged the following year when a fever led doctors to discover her sex, but she successfully petitioned for a military pension.
In her memoir she wrote of how she ‘burst the tyrant bonds which held my sex in awe and clandestinely grabbed an opportunity which custom and the world seemed to deny as a natural privilege’.
Gannett said that she ‘did throw off the soft habiliments of my sex and assume those of the warrior, prepared for battle’.
CIVIL WAR: ‘DISTAFF SOLDIERS’ CHEWED TOBACCO, DESERTED, AND EVEN SHOT AN ATTEMPTED SEX ATTACKER IN THE FACE
In 1861 a New England spinster wrote in her diary: ‘I long to be a man but as I can’t fight I will content myself working with for those who can’.
But that was not always the case according to memoirist Mary Livermore who wrote that nearly 400 women fought on both sides of the Civil War dressed as men, though there could well have been many more.
They were known as ‘distaff soldiers’ and took advantage of lax army physicals; doctors often only checked for a trigger finger and for enough teeth to rip open a rifle cartridge.
Working class women were used to physical labor and underage men had higher voices and no facial hair.
Loose clothing hid feminine curves and men did not know what women looked like in pants.
Soldiers also slept in their clothes and used the woods as a toilet.
Civil war: Sarah Emma Edmonds revealed in her memoir that she dressed as a man and enlisted for three years under the name ‘Franklin Thompson’ in the Second Michigan Infantry in 1861 – a Confederate captain conscripted her without realizing she was a woman and forced her to fight against Union soldiers
Some women even adopted ‘masculine vices’ like chewing tobacco, gambling, fighting and chatting up other women.
These ‘distaff soldiers’ served in every rank from private to major, working as scouts, guards and spies.
The youngest known female to fight was just 12 years old and women fought at famous battles such as Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg.
Only three deserted and two changed sides, six served while pregnant and a Union soldier fought at Antietam in her second trimester and Vicksburg in her third.
There was only one known reported sexual assault – the intended victim, a Union soldier, responded by shooting her attacker in the face.
Those who served as spies risked being executed if they were discovered.
Some 3,200 women served as nurses on the front line, many through the US Christian Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross.
Sarah Emma Edmonds dressed as a man and enlisted for three years under the name ‘Franklin Thompson’ in the Second Michigan Infantry in 1861.
Brave: Women were at the front lines for one the most significant battles ever fought in American history.
Pictured: Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War
She worked as a mail carrier and a spy and wrote her memoir in 1864: ‘Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: a Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army’.
She described how when she was a Union spy a Confederate captain tried to conscript her without realizing she was a woman and forced her to fight against Union soldiers.
During the battle she shot the captain in the face to, as she puts it with a dry wit, ‘cancel my obligations’ to him.
She writes: ‘I was sorry for the graceful curve of his mustache was sadly spoiled and the happy bride of the previous morning would no longer rejoice in the beauty of that manly face and exquisite mustache which seemed so proud’.
When the Civil War began Loreta Janeta Velazquez convinced her husband to join the Confederate side.
She then cross-dressed and posed as a lieutenant called Harry T Buford, fought in several battles and left the Army to work as a double agent for the Confederacy.
Her memoir, which was published in 1876, has been questioned for its accuracy ever since it was published, but it was groundbreaking in how it described her enlisting for adventure rather than out of patriotism.
She had a number of romantic liaisons, including another woman dressed as a man who were posing as soldiers too.
In one part she describes how her husband tried to dissuade her from joining up by letting her wear some of his clothes and going to bars to see what it was like.
Nursing role: Men and women are seen outside of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863
She writes that after ‘unsexing’ herself, braiding her hair very close, and putting on a man’s wig she walked out the house in her best masculine gait.
When they arrived in the bar she was not impressed by the barflies she saw and concluded that ‘the biggest talkers are not always the best fighters’.
While in military training camp she wrote: ‘The manner in which too many men are in the habit of referring to the other sex in conversation amongst themselves is thoroughly despicable…
‘…it would be beneficial to many of my sex if they could listen to some such conversations and learn how little respect or real regard men have for them’.
One of America’s most popular heroines, Harriet Tubman, was best known for guiding slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad but she also served with the Union Army as a nurse, scout and spy in South Carolina.
On a trip to Beaufort in 1862 where she is thought to have been dealing with ‘contrabands’, or former slaves who arrived at Union camps, she refused soldiers’ rations.
Instead she supported herself by baking gingerbread pies and brewing root beer to sell to soldiers.
Tubman used her network of former slaves to provide intelligence about Confederate troop movements that was invaluable to Unionists.
Witnesses to the bloodshed: One female veteran Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who worked as a double agent for the Confederacy, said she enlisted for adventure rather than out of patriotism.
Her side’s defeat was presaged by the turning point of Gettysburg, where at Devil’s Den, in the aftermath of the battle, Confederate corpses were lined up for photographs
Dr Mary Edwards Walker worked as an assistant surgeon for the Union Army – her initial application was rejected by Simon Cameron, the secretary of war – so she went around relief hospitals in Washington until one allowed her to work there.
In her memoir ‘Incidents Connected with the Army’ she wrote of how male surgeons amputated limbs of soldiers who only had flesh wounds ‘for the purpose of their own practice’ which she thought was barbaric and cruel.
She began telling soldiers not to give their consent for the operation if she felt it was unwarranted, swearing them to secrecy in doing so.
Walker worked at the battle of Vicksburg and her work at battlefield hospitals near Chickamauga, where Union forces suffered 16,000 casualties, impressed General George G Thomas.
He overruled a medical board evaluation of her skills – they belittled her and only asked questions about women’s health – and appointed her as an assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
She was captured by the Confederates and upon her release went back to work, carrying out humanitarian and espionage missions behind enemy lines.
After ending her military service in 1865 President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her ‘patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded’.
WORLD WAR ONE: FIRST WOMAN ENLISTS AS ANYTHING OTHER THAN A NURSE – AND THE ‘HELLO GIRLS’ DEFY GERMAN SHELLING
Women took on an unprecedented role in the military during World War I and by the end nearly 21,500 women had served in the Army Nurse Corps with nearly 10,000 posted overseas.
On March 17 1917 Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to officially enlist in the US armed forces in a non-nursing capacity.
She later became the Navy’s first female petty officer.
Women were not initially allowed to serve at sea and worked on shore as typists, stenographers, truck drivers, intelligence analysts and clerks.
Some with training as electricians filled primers on torpedoes which set off the explosives; men filled on average 29 a week but women averaged 162.
Historic: By 1917 during WWI, Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to officially enlist in the US armed forces in a non-nursing capacity – she later became the Navy’s first female petty officer
Some 450 women enrolled in the Signal Corps from 1918 onwards and became known as the ‘Hello Girls’ – the Army trained them but they paid for their own uniforms.
In October 1918 a dozen female signal operators were ordered to near the front at Ligny to help deal with the communications between Allied troops when they came under heavy shelling from the Germans.
The women refused to leave their posts until they were threatened with a court martial for disobeying orders.
They returned to their switchboards within an hour.
After the war when the women requested their Victory Medals and honorable discharges they discovered the Army only considered them contract workers, so if they had been captured or killed they would have had no military status and their families would have got no benefits.
Dedication: In 1918, a dozen female signal operators, also known as the Hello Girls, refused to leave application for fever in school their posts until they were threatened with a court martial to near the front at Ligny to help deal with the communications between Allied troops when they came under attack by the Germans
Among the heroes of WWI was Beatrice MacDonald who was from New York and enlisted to the Army nurse corps in 1917.
During the conflict she was stationed in France at the Second Evacuation Hospital and was hit by shrapnel from a German air raid.
Surgeons had to remove the whole eye but she returned to work six weeks later and said: ‘I’ve only started doing my bit’.
Beatrice Macdonald, an army nurse during the first World War, had her whole eye removed after she was hit by shrapnel, but returned to work six weeks later
Cassie White and Minna Meyer were working as nurses five miles west of Verdun in France in November 1918 when the Germans began shelling their hospital.
White ordered that the patients be evacuated and with too few soldiers around to help them, she and Meyer carried them all to safety on stretchers through the knee deep mud and pouring rain – with shells exploding around them.
Leila Leibrand was among the first 10 women to join the Marines in 1918.
She was a divorcee with a young daughter and used her eighth-grade education and stenographers course to get a job as a newspaper reporter in Missouri in 1911.
Within five years she was writing scripts for Hollywood and she worked in the publicity department for the Marine Corps and wrote articles for military papers.
After the war she married and managed the career of Virginia McMath, better known as Ginger Rogers.
WORLD WAR II: 500 WOMEN PAY THE ULTIMATE PRICE – AND OTHERS SHOW MEN HOW TO FIGHT
By the end of WWII 350,000 women – all volunteers – had served in the armed forces with more than 500 of those killed.
Women flew planes, trained male pilots and worked as translators, intelligence experts and on the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb.
But they still had to overcome resistance to their progress up the ranks.
Men and jealous wives started rumor campaigns that 90 per cent of women in the military were prostitutes and nearly half were being sent home pregnant.
Other rumors claimed that all women in the armed forces had been issued condoms.
Among the nurses who served during WWII was Avis Schorer who went ashore on the beaches of Normandy five days after D-Day.
In her memoir: ‘A Half Acre of Hell: A Combat Nurse in WWII’, she wrote that instead of being welcomed men on the shore shouted: ‘What the hell are women doing here?
This place is hot. Take the first vehicle and get out of here’.
Josette Wingo, who served in the Navy during WWII taught men how to shoot down enemy aircraft and recalled in her memoir hearing male sailors chanting: ‘It takes five of your broads what two guys can do’
Among the nurses who served during WWII was Avis Schorer who went ashore on the beaches of Normandy five days after D-Day (US troops seen flooding Omaha
Still, they were not welcomed ashore as Schorer recalls being shouted at by male troops who said: ‘What the hell are women doing here?
This place is hot. Take the first vehicle and get out of here’
Schorer stayed put and watched a dogfight from her Red Cross tent that led to an Allied plane crashing 200 yards from her.
She wrote that in her first 36 hours their 750-bed hospital admitted 1,129 casualties and Schorer was on duty for 36 hours straight.
She dug herself a fox hole and slept in her clothes amid constant air raids and shelling.
She then began to avoid the mess hall because meal times were when the Germans liked to attack. During one strike, the Germans used 100 planes to drop bombs directly on them, where Schorer lost a close friend.
Despite making strides in the military, women were still facing sexism from their own counterparts.
WWII veteran Josette Wingo taught men how to shoot down enemy aircraft and recalled in her memoir hearing male sailors chanting: ‘It takes five of your broads what two guys can do’.
Mary C Lynne served in the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve and wrote in her memoir that male soldiers reacted to her with everything from and ‘enthusiastic reception through to amused condescension to open hostility’.
She wrote: ‘Any woman who tries to become part of a man’s world is automatically placing herself at the beginning of an obstacle course’.
Dozens of other women were taken captive by the Japanese in the Philippines and kept as prisoners of war where they endured starvation rations and their captors trying to sexually assault them at night.
By 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 finally establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services.
Black women began to serve as nurses though initially they worked in segregated units commanded by a black woman.
AND NOW: WOMEN WITH SILVER STARS AND EVEN FEMALE INFANTRY MARINES
In the aftermath of WWII thousands of women were recruited by the OSS, what became the CIA and Special Operations Command.
Away from the front lines their talents were put to use analyzing intelligence, breaking codes and managing the flow of classified material.
During the Vietnam War women did not serve until nearly a decade after the conflict began.
Making history: Earlier this year three women became the first female members of the Marine Corps Infantry – Maria Daume (pictured with her mother) graduated in March and is now the fourth to enlist in that career field