When Brig. Gen. Laura Yeager, a decorated helicopter pilot, became the first women to lead a United States Army infantry division this summer, the news did not come as a shock to most.
A woman in the military is not new. Women have served in some military capacity since the Revolutionary War, but their roles were often confined to non-combat roles. On this Veteran’s Day, La Vida Latina takes a moment to scroll through history and find the key points that allowed General Yeager to become a pioneer for generations to come.
Free a Man to Fight
Women throughout history played vital roles in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and first World War, one of the most significant changes, however, occurred on the cusp of a second World War.
In the late 1930s, as the threat of another World War loomed, Congresswomen Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) resolved that the country’s “women would not again serve with the Army without the same protection men got.”
As consequence, the Women’s Army Corps was created - at the time its creation was considered one of the most dramatic gender-changing events in American history.
During WWII women began to take on active roles in the military and, though not permitted to fight in combat, they were often in combat zones. The “free a man to fight” policy of the war meant putting women in roles that had, traditionally, been reserved for men.
Hundreds of women worked in military intelligence, cryptography, parachute rigging, maintenance and supply. Alongside them were 60,000 Army Nurses serving around the world and over 1,000 women flew aircraft for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
Over the course of the war, 140,000 women served in the U.S. Army and the Women’s Army Corps.
Equality on all fronts
After the Vietnam War ended and the draft was eliminated, the rising feminist movement paved the way for major impacts on both the Women’s Army Crops (WAC) and Army Nurse Corps. With the establishment of an all-volunteer force in 1973, more opportunities became available for women increasing the ranks in the WAC from 12,260 in 1972 to 52,900 in 1978.
The 70s saw the first women enter into the Army Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) as well as the graduation of the first ROTC cadets. Furthermore, the Army’s basic training was consolidated in 1975 allowing men and women to train together and by 1977 combined basic training was policy.
With the combination of basic training and the dissolution of the draft, the need for a separate Women’s Army Corps became superfluous. In 1978 Congress passed a law that disestablished the WAC as a separate Corps of the Army.
Risk Rule, Noriega and The Persian Gulf
With women getting more involved in combat-related missions, the Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, issued the Standard Risk Rule to help standardize the service assignments of women in hostile areas.
That rule came to a head in 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. In an effort to overthrow drug czar and dictator Manuel Noriega and reestablish Panama’s democratically-elected government, the U.S. deployed its forces to Panama. Over 600 Army women participated in the operation and, when the environment became hostile, military police commander, Capt. Linda Bray, found herself at the command of men in battle - making her the first to do so.
The Persian Gulf War and its operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, saw the greater number of women serving in combat areas since World War II. With 24,000 women serving in the Persian Gulf, it became clear that their presence was not only warranted, but necessary.
September 11 and Combat
Though women had served on or near the frontlines in nearly every U.S.-involved conflict, they had still not been allowed to serve in direct ground combat roles.
That changed in 2016 when Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved final plans to open all combat jobs to women, paving the way for Yeager and thousands of women to come, to serve in all facets of the U.S. Armed Forces.