Throughout American history, women have faced discrimination in many forms and facets of their lives. From being denied the right to vote until 1920 to working the same jobs for less pay even today, women have repeatedly faced unique challenges compared to their male counterparts. Military service is no exception.
Only last year did women earn the right to participate in all combat roles, even though women have been fighting for our country alongside men since our nation was founded.
Servicewomen by the Numbers
- Prior to WWI, the only way women were allowed to fight on the front lines was by disguising themselves as men. If they were discovered, they were immediately discharged.
- It is estimated that anywhere from 400 to 750 women fought in the Civil War.
- Today, there are over 214,000 servicewomen. It is estimated that one out of ten women in the military become pregnant each year.
- It is estimated that nearly 30,000 single mothers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The First – and Only – Female Medal of Honor Recipient
To date, only one woman has ever been awarded the Medal of Honor for her service to the military. That woman is the incredible Civil War veteran, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. In 1855, Walker earned her degree in medicine from Syracuse Medical College, America’s first and only medical school at the time that accepted both men and women. Out of her graduating class, Walker was the only female.
Walker attempted to join the Army as a doctor following the outbreak of the Civil War but was denied. Never one to take no for an answer, Walker decided to offer medical assistance to soldiers on a voluntary basis before going on to work as a field surgeon for the Union army. In 1863, she was finally accepted as a civilian assistant surgeon. She was the first female surgeon that worked for the Army.
She was never officially recorded as a member of the Army, but President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor to commend her service. And, as you may have guessed, Congress revoked her Medal of Honor in 1917, along with nearly 1,000 others. This was because Congress had recently passed new criteria for Medal of Honor recipients, the key one being that recipients must have engaged in physical combat with the enemy.
Wily old Walker wouldn’t stand for it – she refused to turn her medal in and wore it every day until she died two years later. The Army posthumously re-awarded her Medal of Honor in the 1970s.
Moms in the Military
Walker’s legacy proves that men certainly aren’t the only ones who lay down their lives for their country. But Walker also never had any children. What about the women who leave behind their children to serve their country? We want to honor the mothers who put their lives on the line – and paid the ultimate price – for our country’s freedom.
- Anna Maria Lane. During the Revolutionary War, Lane disguised herself as a man and joined her husband to serve in the Army. She was severely wounded at the Battle of Germantown and was forced to leave the Army. She, her husband, and their three children went to live in Richmond, Virginia, where Lane worked as a nurse at the military hospital. She was one of the first women to receive a military pension for her service. In fact, she earned over twice as much as her husband.
- Mary Ann Clark. When her husband traded her and their two children in for a new wife, Clark made a new identity for herself: Henry Clark, Confederate soldier. She was captured by Union forces at the Battle of Richmond, who released her on the condition that she “live like a lady” again. They even gave her a dress. After her release, she rejoined the Confederate Army and served openly as a female. One of her fellow soldiers recalled her service in a letter back home: “Pa among all the curiosities I have seen since I left home one I must mention, a female lieutenant.”
- Eduviges G. Wolf, 24. Much like Walker before her, Wolf refused to give up on a goal once she set her mind to it. As a cadet in high school, she spent six weeks attempting to clear a wall on an obstacle course, and her whole body was covered in bruises as a result. In 2009, Wolf was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade that struck her vehicle during her deployment to Afghanistan. She left behind two young daughters.
- AF Capt. Victoria Pinckney, 27. Victoria Pinckney wanted to join the Air Forcesince she was a child. When she was heavily pregnant with her son, Pinckney and her unit volunteered for a nonprofit organization providing free food to the homeless. A fellow servicewoman remembered her working for more than five hours without a break. In 2013, she was killed in the line of duty when her plane crashed near Kyrgyzstan. She left behind a seven-month-old son.
We’ve Still Got Work to Do
The branches of the military have come a long way in making military careers more viable for women and mothers since Lane and Walker’s day, but there’s still plenty left to work on.
Some military moms, especially single mothers, may not have anyone back home to look after their child if they get called to deploy. In 2009, Army cook and single mom Alexis Hutchinson was arrestedafter she refused to deploy to Afghanistan. The Army suggested that Hutchinson place the child in foster care during her deployment, or contact the father who had never taken part in the baby’s life.
The Army defended their decision by saying they created discharge options for single parents whose parental obligations got in the way of their military duties. The heart of the issue, though, is not that servicewomen don’t know their options – it’s that they don’t want to have to make that choice.
While Hutchinson’s is an older case, it’s a distressing example of just how difficult military life can be for military moms. Too little credit is awarded to the mothers in the military who spend months, and sometimes years, away from their children fighting under the American flag, especially in light of the incredible achievements and contributions servicewomen have made throughout our nation’s history.
Women in the military have come a long way. They’ve shattered ceilings, they’ve overcome antiquated gender barriers, and they’ve proven themselves as equal both on and off the battlefield. We’re certainly grateful to all the servicewomen out there, both past and present, who remain dedicated to a sense of both duty and motherhood.