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15 Things You Didn’t Know About Women in the Military

Career, Lifestyle
15 Things You Didn’t Know About Women in the Military

Women have played an integral part in the U.S. armed forces since the Revolutionary War. But even though their roles have evolved to become fully-fledged soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, women still face some outdated assumptions about their capabilities and fitness for service. Take a look back at the history of women in the U.S. military and check out some of the extraordinary strides women have made in just the past decade.

15. The first women’s ROTC program began in 1942

Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

One of the first officer training programs for women was organized in 1942 at the University of New Hampshire, where women studying toward a college degree could also learn to march and lead with the goal of becoming officers in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the only auxiliary branches of the military they could join. The participants were pretty enthusiastic, designing their uniforms and putting together a variety of activities not normally seen in a standard ROTC program—ice skating and gymnastics were some of the training events on the roster.

14. The first women qualified as paratroopers in 1973

via National Archives

When women transitioned from WACs, WASPS and WAVES (all-female military support units created in World War II) in the 1970s, many specialty qualifications were closed to them, like parachute qualification, because of their combat designation. However, in 1973, two women graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School and qualified for their paratrooper badge. The loophole was possible because they were trained as parachute riggers—the people who repair and pack chutes between jumps. And every parachute rigger had to know what it was like to jump out of an airplane with only a correctly packed chute between them and an awfully hard landing. While thousands of women have since earned their jump wings, it was more than 40 years before another coveted combat rating opened to women, albeit on a trial basis: the legendary Ranger tab.

13. Women have served since the Revolutionary War

via State of New Jersey

At least two women saw combat during the Revolutionary War: Margaret Corbin (a.k.a. Molly Pitcher), who served alongside her husband, and Deborah Sampson Gannett, who posed as a man. Both eventually applied for and received pensions for their service. During the Civil War, an unknown number of women, perhaps 400, cut their hair, put on uniforms and posed as men—some for the adventure, others to follow husbands or boyfriends into battle.

12. Women were first officially allowed to enlist in WWI

via Rich Stories

While women served as nurses and doctors in military hospitals during the Civil War and the Spanish American War, they were not officially part of the military. That changed in World War I, when the U.S. Navy recruited women to work as nurses and in other occupations, followed by the Army. More than 33,000 women joined the U.S. military between 1917 and 1918, and more than 400 were killed during the war.

11. Women flew fighters during WWII

via Wikipedia

During World War II it would not have been unusual to see a squadron of fighter planes or bombers land at Army Air Corps bases, all piloted by women. The U.S. military needed experienced pilots to ferry aircraft from the factory to the front lines, and the WASPS (Women Air Force Service Pilots) handled that job within the U.S., freeing up male pilots to serve in combat zones overseas. In Russia, women flew combat and reconnaissance missions.

10. Women bring a new dimension to gathering intel

via Military Times

In the ongoing war on terror, women are playing bigger roles than ever before, and they’re uniquely suited for some types of missions. In Afghanistan, members of military “female engagement teams” are able to gather intelligence by talking directly to the women of various villages—something male soldiers are usually not allowed to do because of cultural constraints.

9. Military women are testing the boundaries of gender roles


In 2015, the Department of Defense lifted a 1994 rule that banned women from serving in any combat role (including women who had already served in combat during the 1991 Gulf War), and added to that by allowing women to serve in just about any combat role in the military. But women had been serving in combat since the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, because of the need for medics, pilots, mechanics and other support in front-line units. The military’s gender-integrated basic training has helped change opinions about women’s ability to do physically demanding work and remain mentally tough, particularly among the male peers they train with.

8. Obtaining proper healthcare can be a problem


Even as women’s presence on the battlefield increases, their access to proper healthcare while deployed can be problematic, and they can suffer from ailments that their male counterparts don’t even think about. For example, urinary tract infections and vaginal infections (such as yeast infections) are far too common: about half of the 150 women surveyed in 2011 following their deployment to Afghanistan suffered from one or both during their time in these combat areas. That’s partly because many of them drink less water when wearing ill-fitting battle gear, so they won’t have to use the bathroom as much. The Army actually issues a device that enables women to pee standing up, but most women aren’t told that it’s available to them.

7. Women increasingly must meet the same fitness standards as men

via Business Insider

The bar for women’s fitness has continually been raised over the past several decades, and women in the military now meet much higher standards for physical fitness than their predecessors of the 1970s. That is especially true for those who are signing up for combat jobs, where top fitness is essential. In 2015, two Army officers, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lieut. Shaye Haver, became the first women to graduate from the grueling Ranger School. It’s one of the toughest physical challenges the military has to offer—in 2014, only 1,609 men earned the coveted Ranger tab, out of 4,057 to try for it. Attrition was much higher for women in the first integrated Ranger class: only Griest and Haver completed the 62-day course out of 18 who began it.

6. Getting effective birth control for deployment can be tough

Credit: Stacy L. Pearsall via Upworthy

Likewise, getting birth control ahead of and during a deployment to forward areas is still a challenge for many women in the U.S. military. Many aren’t made aware of all the options they have available, such as injectables or IUDs, and military clinics aren’t required to stock all the different varieties of birth control. Why does that matter? Besides the primary reason, which is to not get pregnant, certain types of birth control also make menstruation easier, reducing flow and easing cramps, neither of which is much fun when you’re on patrol. Pharma company Allergan is one of a few companies trying to make IUDs and other birth control easier to access on military bases, but that initiative has only just started. And in the meantime, the military’s standard-issue glasses above, endearingly referred to as BCG’s (birth control goggles), aren’t going to cut it.

5. They deal with outdated assumptions about their roles

via Wikipedia

Army veteran Kayla Williams in 2009, who served as a linguist and military intelligence specialist with the 101 Airborne, wrote about how she was “Used to biting my tongue when I’m asked if I was allowed to carry a gun in Iraq because I’m ‘just a girl.’ Fast forward eight years, and that assumption still plays out among the civilian population, many of whom think women are still relegated to jobs located well behind the front lines. However, two women were awarded the Silver Star for heroism in direct combat between 2005 and 2015, when the infantry units they were supporting were attacked.

4. They’re at much higher risk of harassment and assault in the military


Women in the military are motivated to prove that they can do the job that needs to be done, without complaining. Unfortunately that, along with a predominantly masculine military culture, means that many do not report incidents of harassment or even assault. In 2011, the Department of Defense received just under 3,200 reports of sexual assault, but DoD officials estimated that the number was much higher—perhaps 19,000. The number of reports climbed to 6,083 in 2015, likely because of efforts to encourage people to speak out. While the military works hard to prevent harassment and assault from occurring, too often women find themselves on the defensive when they report an incident.

3. Most gear isn’t designed to fit women

via Christian Science Monitor

Women tend to be shorter and, well, differently shaped than men, and that means a lot of military gear just doesn’t fit them correctly. While the first instinct might be to suck it up and keep going, poorly fitted gear can cause a lot of problems, from repetitive stress injuries (after hours lugging a frame pack that doesn’t fit right) to potentially deadly wounds (from shrapnel getting through wider gaps in badly fitted body armor). The military hasn’t really come up with long-term solutions to the problem, although it is testing body armor better fitted to women’s bodies.

2. Hair is a huge issue

via Gawker

Military women have to conform to a maze of regulations about how to wear their hair, and even have to battle with their own commands to be able to wear hairstyles that are more comfortable and less labor-intensive out in the field. For example, the Army this year relaxed a ban on dreadlocks and twists, and eased up on the width requirements for cornrows—three hairstyles that have significant cultural importance to African-American soldiers, and that are much easier to maintain in the field. Many of the first women to go through grueling infantry training in 2016 opted to shave their heads, partly for solidarity, but also for convenience’s sake.

1. Women have received more awards for heroism in the last 15 years than any since World War II


More than 9,000 Army women have been awarded Combat Action Badges for actively engaging enemy combatants—being in direct combat—in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 400 women have received awards for heroism, including two Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 31 Air Medals and 16 Bronze Stars. “Women are integral in all theaters of combat as we speak,” said former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Ordierno, in 2012. Keep in mind that between 1994 and 2015, women were effectively banned from being in direct combat—but jumped into action anyway.


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