By Olivia Rigby
Despite many people still saying that women don’t belong in the military, the number of women in the military is going up daily. From 1973 to 2020, the percentage of women in the military has risen from 2% to 16%. That percentage still isn’t that high, however. Though times are changing, women still face significant challenges in the military. Keep reading to learn more about the history of women in the Armed Forces as well as the pros and cons of being a woman in the military.

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Women in the Military by the Numbers

So, how many women are in the military? What’s the percentage of women in the military from branch to branch? As of 2020, women took up about 16% of the military. The number of women in each branch varies, however. Below is a breakdown of how many women are in each branch.

Women in the Army

The Army is the largest military branch. Women in the Army take up about 19% of the officer corps and 14% of the enlisted force.

Women in the Navy

In the Navy, 19% of Naval officers are women, and 20% of the enlisted force consists of women.

Women in the Marine Corps

While most of the branches of the military are about 1/5th women, the Marine Corps has the lowest number of women in it. About 8% of the officer corps of the Marine Corps is women, and only 9% of the enlisted force is women.

Women in the Air Force

The Air Force has one of the highest numbers of women in their ranks. 21% of their officer corps is women, and 20% of their enlisted force is women. Numbers for the Space Force have not yet been made public.

Women in the Coast Guard

In the Coast Guard, 23% of the members of the officer corps are women. 13% of the enlisted force is women. With the number of women in the military rising, it can make one wonder, where did women in the military really begin? When were women officially allowed to exist as part of the Armed Forces? Keep reading to learn more about the history of women in military environments.

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The First Woman in the Military

Military women” have been a thing since at least the 1830s. These women served in the Coast Guard as civilian lighthouse keepers but were not allowed to wear a Coast Guard uniform until World War I. World War I marked a significant change for women and the military. With the men out at war, women filled their daily roles, and thousands of women began volunteering as nurses or even ambulance drivers.

Additionally, during WWI, due to a loophole in the Naval Act of 1916, women enlisted as noncommissioned officers (yeomen). These women served stateside, replacing the men who had gone overseas to fight in WWI. They had the same responsibilities as the yeomen men, and they were even given the same pay as men in the same position!

The first woman in the military – or at least the first woman to officially enlist – was Loretta Perfectus Walsh. She enlisted in the Navy on March 21, 1917. At the time, the country was preparing for war, but not many men were enlisting in the Navy. The Navy allowed women to enlist in hopes that more men would enlist as a response. Walsh was offered the opportunity to enlist as a chief yeoman, and she took it.

A year later, in 1918, Opha May Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps. The Marines allowed women to start serving in clerical roles in 1918 to fill the roles left by men overseas. Johnson was the first woman to enlist, along with 300 other women around the same time.

The first woman to join the Air Force was Esther McGowin Blake. She first joined the Army but then joined the Air Force in 1948 when women were allowed to enlist for regular Air Force duty. She joined the Air Force because of her sons; both of them were also serving in the Air Force during WWII.

Though these women were some of the first to officially enlist in the military, many historians will argue that Deborah Sampson was the first woman in U.S. history to serve in the military.

Sampson was an indentured servant but disguised herself as a man by the name of Robert Shurtliff to enlist in the Continental Army sometime between 1781-1782. Her time as Robert Shurtliff was short-lived, but when she was discovered, she was honorably discharged and returned home in 1784.

These women, and the women history has not recorded, have helped make significant changes in the military. Because of their service and their sacrifices, women now have more opportunities in the military. Women in the military now, however, are still facing some huge challenges.

Challenges Women Face in the Military

Being a military woman is not easy. There are some serious challenges women in the military face, but the opportunities women are given can make the challenges worth it. For women in the military, pros and cons lists are lengthy. Possibly one of the biggest challenges women in the military face is the challenge of making a name for themselves in a male-dominated career.

Historically, women have not been able to serve in many combat roles, but recently that rule changed (as long as they qualify for that position). Many women will still report that they’re not treated the same as their male counterparts, even if they were serving in the same positions. Women in the Armed Forces also, sadly, can face a higher risk of military sexual trauma.

As of 2021, 8.4% of women in the Armed Forces have experienced some sort of unwanted sexual advances. Women who are considering starting families also have to remember that the military is not very effective at adequately supporting motherhood for their troops.

A pregnancy can disrupt or even ruin a military career because of some military pregnancy regulations. Women seeking to make a career out of the military can definitely do it, but not without challenges. Facing gender discrimination as well as the potential for abuse is not something everyone is able to put themselves through, but women who serve are able to get the same benefits as men, like VA benefits, discounts, etc. When considering the pros and cons of serving in the military as a woman, the challenges that come with the benefits always need to be considered.

Advancements of Women in the Military

Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost and Army General Laura Richardson, two prominent female military leaders today, shared their advice about how to carry on as women in the military. Van Ovost, who has been serving in the military since 1988, said, “A career in the military is not an easy walk. There's a lot of sacrifices that every person makes but the opportunities are worth it.”

In reference to women in combat roles, Richardson said, “We don't have anything holding us back except maybe ourselves. And so that's pretty tremendous to today's military.” Women now have so many more opportunities in the military than they did even 20 years ago. Both of these women expressed their gratitude for the military and all the opportunities they’ve been given by serving.

Van Ovost was able to command numerous squadrons, and Richardson has also commanded several units. Women like Van Ovost and Richardson have helped make significant changes in the military and are great examples for women in the Armed Forces seeking someone to look up to.

Being a woman in the military is not easy. They face a lot of challenges, from gender discrimination to abuse and much more. But women still exist in the military, and the number of women joining the military is growing daily. The future is bright.

While there are challenges now, military women from the past have helped change the landscape of the Armed Forces, so military women in the present can help make even more changes. There's a lot to consider as women in the military; weighing the challenges with the opportunities can be difficult, but women can gain a lot from military service.

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The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. Photo by Airman Jan Valle 5th Bomb Wing Public Affairs



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