The Evolving Roles of Women in the Military

February 7, 2014


Although the Department of Defense lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles just one year ago, women have been valuable members of the military since the American Revolution. Whether disguising themselves as men – as Deborah Sampson did during the Revolutionary War – or following their husbands to the outskirts of the battlefields to provide medical care and assistance, women have long been finding ways to serve their country during wartime.

However, it wasn’t until World War I when women were allowed to officially enter the ranks. According to the U.S. Army website, the National Service School was established in 1916 by the Women’s Naval Service to train women in military operations. As the need for troops persisted, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps began soliciting female soldiers. Overall, more than 35,000 women served in World War I, with nearly 21,000 working in the Army Nurse Corps.

Although the Army Reorganization Act of 1920 issued officer status with “relative rank” to military nurses, women weren’t granted permanent military status until 1948, according to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 marked a turning point for female soldiers, as it made them full, active members of the regular and reserve forces.

Despite the ban on women fulfilling combat roles, which was instated by the Pentagon in 1994, The New York Times reported that hundreds of thousands of female soldiers were deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As of 2012, more than 800 women had been wounded during the conflict.

Currently, there are more than 214,000 women soldiers, representing 14.6 percent of active-duty personnel, according to data compiled by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The Army has the highest number of female soldiers – more than 76,000. Approximately 30 percent of active-duty female soldiers fulfill medical roles, while another 30 percent work in administrative positions.