Marines volunteer in a uniform presentation at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego theater during an observation of Women’s History Month, March 26. The uniforms modeled are the various uniforms woman Marines wore throughout history. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rebecca A. Lamont)
By Rindi White
It may be only in the past year that every position in the military has been open to women, but women have held an active role in our nation’s military since the very battles that led to the founding of a free United States.
Margaret Corbin, born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in 1751, joined her husband as a camp follower when he joined the Pennsylvania military. She earned money cooking and doing laundry for soldiers and helped tend the sick and wounded, according to a biography from the National Women’s History Museum. On Nov. 16, 1776, Corbin dressed in men’s clothing and joined her husband in the Battle of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island.
“There, she helped him load his cannon, and when he was killed, she quickly and heroically took over firing the cannon against the British. Other soldiers commented on ‘Captain Molly’s’ steady aim and sure shot. Eventually, however, she, too, was hit by enemy fire, which nearly severed her left arm and severely wounded her jaw and left breast. She was unable to use her left arm for the rest of her life,” the NWHM biography states.
The British won that battle, and Corbin was among those taken as prisoners of war. She was later paroled and released to a Revolutionary-era hospital. After her recovery, she joined the West Point Invalid Regiment, where she worked for several years. She was the first woman to receive a military pension and the first woman laid to rest with full military honors at West Point.
Dr. Mary E. Walker, a contract surgeon during the Civil War, is the first and only woman to receive the distinguished Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson. After graduating with a doctor of medicine degree, she offered her services as a surgeon but was not appointed as one because she was a woman. She declined a job as a nurse and instead accepted an unpaid position in the temporary military hospital, then housed in the U.S. Patent Office, and worked in field hospitals in Virginia, according to the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History. Two years later, she finally secured a job with the War Department as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon,” a job that the Center for Military History states was equal in pay to a lieutenant or captain, depending on experience and length of service.
Walker spent four months as a prisoner of war after being captured by Confederates and, after freed during a prisoner exchange, was assigned as medical director at a hospital for women prisoners.
The U.S. Army isn’t alone in providing an early launching point for women in military service. The U.S. Navy has hired women as nurses since the 1800s, according to Navy.mil. Many women served during the Civil War, including the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who served aboard the USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship.
The U.S. Marines opened enrollment to women seeking clerical duties in 1918. Opha May Johnson is credited as the first woman Marine, the first of some 300 women who enrolled that year.
Their trailblazing efforts — and the efforts of other women who pegged “first” honors — are part of what has led to the diverse and strong U.S. military of today.
When announcing the decision to open all roles of the military to women in a press briefing in December 2015, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the decision to open the remaining 10 percent of positions that were previously closed to women —such as U.S. Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and more — would further strengthen the U.S. military. As a meritocracy, where people who serve are judged on their abilities, the military now gives everyone a chance to excel equally, Carter said.
“That’s why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known, and it’s one other way we will strive to ensure that the force of the future remains so, long into the future,” he said.