Women in American Military History, 1776-1918

By Small, Stephen C. | Military Review, March/April 1998 | Go to article overview

Women in American Military History, 1776-1918


Small, Stephen C., Military Review


The history of women serving in the US military or in martial roles has been largely ignored by military historians and general historical scholarship. This marginalization of women's history is particularly unfortunate, because women have always been a part (either officially or unofficially) of the American Armed Forces. They have sometimes served in supporting roles; at other times, as combatants. American women have demonstrated their martial courage and competence in every US war.

While conducting a literature survey on the subject of women in the American military and women warriors, I was struck by the uniformly thin coverage of early American women's military contributions. This omission was curious because from 1776 to 1918, women served in or with the military in myriad capacities. Their diverse roles included nurse, physician, laundress, armament worker and combatant. This history is particularly important because it demonstrates the variety of roles-few of which fit society's expectations-women have played in the profession of arms.1

In 1776 the American military was little more than a tiny regional force. By 1918 it had developed into the mature military of a world power. After World War I, military leaders were reluctantly reconciled to women's military involvement-not simply as an option during times of crisis, but as a necessary part of the American military worthy of both respect and remembrance.2

The Revolutionary War

During the American Revolution the Army was a nearly all-male institution. Most soldiers were young, and more than a few were just boys. Ofcially, the Army was a racially exclusive institution. The majority of soldiers were white. However, despite the continued reliance on white males, more than 5,000 black men fought in the Army or militia during the Revolutionary War. Several hundred more served in the Navy.3

The war's exigencies also caused a breach in the gender line. By war's end in 1783, more than 20,000 women had provided support, sustenance or active service for the military. Although not officially part of the military, women were vital contributors to its success.4 They helped hold the Army together. The Army was the heart of the resistance and was crucial to the patriots' cause. Yet desertion was one of the greatest challenges troop commander George Washington faced. Lengthy periods of deprivation, insufficient food and inadequate clothing and footwear were the most frequent causes of desertion. During the bleak winter at Valley Forge, desertions reached crisis proportions. During a particularly dismal period, several large wagons filled with foodstuffs arrived. Ten women had braved the elements and poor roads to deliver tons of precious supplies to the beleaguered Army.5 Women helped stem the tide of desertions by cooking, chopping firewood, building shelters and nursing wounded or ill men back to health. Washington once remarked that without the Army's women, many more men would have deserted.6

For the women who accompanied the Army, life was difficult and dangerous. Little or no provision was made for them. They typically relied on their husband-soldiers for support. Sometimes they were allowed to ride in the baggage wagons, but few other concessions were granted them.7

Few women served directly as combatants. However, some did fight from necessity or choice. Molly Hays was inspired by circumstances to be a warrior. During the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (Freehold, New Jersey) in late June 1778, a desperate artillery duel took place between American and British forces. The day was oppressive. Temperatures rose to 100 degrees. As American gunners repeatedly loaded and fired their cannon, women brought them drinking water. One of these women was Molly Hays, the wife of an artilleryman.8 As Molly gave water to the cannon crew, a shell burst among them, killing or severely wounding all of the men. Discarding her pitcher, she picked up the ramrod, loaded a cannon ball and fired. …

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