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5 Facts About Women and War That Will Blow Your Stereotypes Out of the Water

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Serving, fighting, and dying in war - since America began, this, too, has been women’s work.

Military Woman Leading Men

Think back to high school American History. Traditionally in times of war, men served in the military, while women raised kids at home and sometimes served as nurses. Right? That’s what we thought too!

Maybe we just weren’t paying enough attention in history class (or maybe history class wasn’t paying enough attention), but it turns out that there is SO much more to the story!

In reality, women’s wartime roles were more than domestic – they pushed boundaries, contributed in inspiring and unexpected ways, and worked and died alongside men. In fact, women have been serving and dying for America as long as there’s been an America!

This Memorial Day, let’s celebrate by dusting off some of the remarkable, forgotten stories of America’s fallen females. We did the homework for you, combing government archives, books by historians, military documents, and more, and what we found was – dare we say? – riveting.

Here are the top 5 eye-opening facts that blew our stereotypes out of the water…

1.  Disguised as men, women fought in nearly every major Civil War battle.

How many women? Historians estimate anywhere from 400 to 1000! (1)

Prohibited from enlisting as women, these females with soldierly ambitions took matters into their own hands, dressing and acting as men, even using pseudonyms to get a chance to be a soldier. Because many enlisted males were teenage boys, women’s lack of facial hair could go unnoticed, and uniforms were often baggy enough to hide their curvier bodies – some women even used padding underneath their clothing to appear bulkier. (2)

While some were discovered within a short time, other women spent years hiding their secret identity, all while languishing in camps, fighting in battles, being held as prisoners of war, and even being promoted to higher ranks alongside men.

In one account, a Union soldier shocked comrades. The Washington Post writes:

A “young and good-looking corporal” from New Jersey that a comrade described as “a real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow,” was promoted to sergeant for bravery. One month later, the sergeant, a veteran of the Seven Days Battle and Antietam, gave birth to a baby boy. (1)

When a woman’s gender was discovered, it was often when a medic was inspecting her battle wounds, or after she was killed in battle. (3) Because it was illegal to be a woman soldier, being discovered meant being discharged – as one discharge document states: “Complaint: sextual incompatibility [sic]”. (3) In fact, one woman was discovered and kicked out six times!

Some even continued to live as men after the war. One poignant example is of soldier Jennie Hodgers who served as a private in the 95th Illinois Infantry. The Washington Post recounts her story:

[She] lived as a man for the next 45 years until she was hit by a car and the doctors treating her discovered her sex. She was later committed to an insane asylum and forced to wear a dress, which she pinned to make into pants. When the Pension Bureau threatened to strip her of her pension, her army comrades rallied to her defense.  One relayed how Hodgers had climbed a tall tree under sniper fire to attach the Union flag after it had been shot down. Another wrote that she’d been captured on a reconnaissance mission outside Vicksburg and escaped by grabbing her guard’s gun, knocking him down and outrunning her captors.  When Hodgers died in 1915, her fellow soldiers made sure she was buried with full military honors. (1)

So why did so many women break the law and social conventions to fight? Reasons could include serving the cause, pursuing adventure, staying with their male loved ones, or even preferring a male gender identity, but another fascinating reason? Gaining human rights.

In an era when women lacked many basic social, economic, and legal freedoms, like the ability to vote, own property, pursue higher education, earn a fair wage, or be considered anything more than her husband’s property (4), taking on a male persona gave women instant rights. As military historian DeAnne Blanton puts it, “they ‘became’ full citizens of their nation.” (2)

Blanton eloquently summarizes why these women were significant:

The actions of Civil War soldier-women flew in the face of mid-nineteenth-century society’s characterization of women as frail, subordinate, passive, and not interested in the public realm […] Quite simply, the women in the ranks, both Union and Confederate, refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even if it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced not only the guns of the adversary but also the sexual prejudices of their society. (3)

Frances Clalin Clayton disguised herself and pretended to be a Union soldier named Jack Williams.

Frances Clalin Clayton disguised herself and pretended to be a Union soldier named Jack Williams.

2. Women’s military jobs weren’t for sissies.

Welding steel, working in shipyards, testing aircraft – turns out, this too is women’s work.

With World War I, the need for combat-ready men spurred the military to more seriously consider the working power of the other half of the population – women. So, in 1901, the military officially opened its doors to them for the first time.

Over the course of the WWI, thousands of women served, and hundreds died. (5)

With WWII, women’s military numbers increased, with nearly 400,000 women serving in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines.

At first, officials assumed that women’s work abilities should be limited to clerical jobs or manufacturing tasks that required tiny woman-fingers, but they quickly realized that women could excel at much more. In fact, in the Marines alone, women had over 225 different job assignment specialties by the end of WWII. (6)

When women started to join the Marines in 1943, the public’s reaction was to trivialize them. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation (WMSAMF) recounts:

The public anticipated a catchy nickname for the women and bombarded headquarters with suggestions such as Femarines, Glamarines, and even, Sub-Marines, but General Holcomb ruled out the cute titles. In a March 1944 issue of Life magazine, he announced, “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines. (6)

Except for combat, women in WWII did nearly everything their fellow male military members did.

“Women earned Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Legions of Merit,” writes the WMSAMF. “Some were held as prisoners of war and some died in the service of their country.” (7)

Bertha Stallworth, age 21, shown inspecting end of 40mm artillery cartridge case at Frankford Arsenal

Bertha Stallworth, age 21, shown inspecting end of 40mm artillery cartridge case at Frankford Arsenal

3. Even civilian women died for war efforts.

Not all people who assist with wars are in the military. Two examples where women played a crucial and sometimes deadly role? War correspondents and nurses.

While typically not part of the military, journalists who work to document our wars play an important role in providing information, insight, and visibility into the thick of combat. Dozens of women worked as accredited war correspondents during America’s wars, including WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, as journalists, photographers, and broadcasters. On assignment in dangerous locations like battlefields, concentration camps, and hospitals, some even lost their lives covering the stories. (8)

Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, a pre-war pilot and photojournalist, covered World War II for Look Magazine when it was uncommon for women to be on the frontlines. Continuing on to travel globally and document nearly every major war zone for the next 20 years, she died in Vietnam after by being hit in the neck with shrapnel from a mine explosion. As she lay dying, she famously shrugged and said, “I guess it was bound to happen.” (9)

Marguerite Higgins, another seemingly fearless correspondent, was crucial in advancing equal access for female correspondents because of her work during WWII and the Korean War. (10) Higgins was honored alongside five male correspondents with the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.  She died in 1966 after contracting a tropical disease while on assignment in Vietnam. (11)

Nurses, too, do dangerous work.

According to Judith Bellafaire, PhD, curator of the WMSAMF, in the Spanish-American War, civilian women were recruited as nurses during a time when 400 men died in combat, while malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid took the lives of over 4,600. To help manage this crisis, over 1,500 civilian nurses were stationed in military hospitals and ships.

Their compensation was typically room and board. The food, according to the letters of one nurse, usually consisted of “mush for breakfast and boiled cabbage and black coffee for dinner” due to supply shortages. Working in extreme conditions with poor sanitation, miserable climates, and long hours, the nurses would often contract the same diseases they fought to treat, some not making it out alive. (12)

The civilian nurses’ crucial work had a major impact on the military. Bellafaire writes:

The inability of the military medical departments to handle the vast numbers of disease-related casualties during the Spanish-American War and the outstanding professional services of contract nurses […] led directly to the creation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. With the creation of these two nursing corps, women became official members of the American military for the first time in history. (12)

Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, a pre-war pilot and photojournalist.

Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, a pre-war pilot and photojournalist.

4. Hundreds of gutsy women civilians piloted military aircraft during WWII.

With the need to free up American men for combat positions, the military desperately needed more pilots. In 1942, after much debate, they formed an experimental program called Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in which they would train young female pilots to fly war machines.

Many women jumped at this chance, and over 1,000 women completed the training. (13)

In her excellent piece on the WASP, NPR’s Susan Stamberg explains that their jobs were not for the faint of heart. “They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition.” (14)

They excelled at piloting, with their safety records equal to and sometimes even better than the men’s. (Even so, it was extremely dangerous work, and 38 of these women died while on mission.)

Elizabeth L. Gardner takes a look around before sending her plane streaking down the runway.

Harlingen Army Air Field, Texas–Elizabeth L. Gardner of Rockford, Illinois, WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot) pilot, takes a look around before sending her plane streaking down the runway at the air base., ca. 1930 – 1975. Courtesy of National Archives.

Even with the success of the program, WASP pilots were still considered civilians working with the military, not enlisted in it. In 1944, as the war started to end and male pilots returned from combat, WASP was shut down to give men back their jobs. This group of highly skilled military pilots went back to normal life, some becoming airline stewardesses because commercial airlines wouldn’t hire women to fly. None of them got the pension or benefits that come with official military service. (14)

Decades later, the military recognized the women of WASP, granting them official military status. In 2010, President Obama honored them with the congressional gold medal.

Four Female Pilots from WASP program.

WASP (from left) Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their B-17, called Pistol Packin’ Mama, during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Air Force base in Ohio. They’re carrying their parachutes.

5. Women’s military awesomeness kept proving naysayers wrong.

When women’s units were first proposed, General Eisenhower had been “violently against” the idea, but later admitted that he was dead wrong, saying “Every phase of the record they compiled during the war convinced me of the error of my first reaction.” (7)

Other top ranking officials gave high praise as well, including General Douglas MacArthur, who called women “’my best soldiers,’ and alleged that they worked harder than men, complained less and were better disciplined.” (15)

In one WASP pilot’s story, retold by her son, she was stereotyped for being a woman:

She was assigned to take up an instructor in an AT-6 who refused to fly with her, saying, “I’m not flying with any God-**** woman pilot,” and walked away. The instructor was ordered to return the next morning, which he did, and completed the instruction period with no comment, and Mom landed back at the base. As he climbed out of the plane, he turned to my mother and said, “Well, I will say you’re the best damned pilot I’ve ever flown with. (14)

Welders with their first piece of steel on a ship.

Welders Alivia Scott, Hattie Carpenter, and Flossie Burtos await an opportunity to weld their first piece of steel on the ship.

We need to keep fighting the historical stereotypes about women that actually don’t fit the reality of their lives. Otherwise, American history will be told as a thin narrative, when in fact it’s so rich and complex and full of surprises like this.

There are so many reasons why these women’s stories matter.

Writer Brigid Schulte’s quote from historian Elizabeth Leonard summarizes it beautifully:

We need to keep telling these stories. We need to keep fighting the historical stereotypes about women that actually don’t fit the reality of their lives. Otherwise, American history will be told as a thin narrative, when in fact it’s so rich and complex and full of surprises like this. (1)

Our thanks to all of the historians who work to tell these stories. Our gratitude to all the women and men who have given their lives in service.



(1) Shulte, B. (2013, April 29). Women soldiers fought, bled and died in the Civil War, then were forgotten. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 19, 2014 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/women-soldiers-fought-bled-and-died-in-the-civil-war-then-were-forgotten/2013/04/26/fa722dba-a1a2-11e2-82bc-511538ae90a4_story.html

(2) Blanton, D., & Cook, L.M. (2003). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Vintage.

(3) Blanton, D. (1993). Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Prologue Magazine, Spring, Vol. 25, No. 1. Retrieved May 19, 2014 from http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1993/spring/women-in-the-civil-war-1.html

(4) Declaration of Sentiments: Report of the Women’s Rights Convention Held at Seneca Falls, NY (1848, July 19 & 20). National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved May 20, 2014 from https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/DeclarationofSentiments.html

(5) Highlights in the History of Military Women. Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/timeline.html

(6) World War II: Marine Corps (Women’s Reserve). Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/wwii(mcwr).html

(7) World War II: Women and the War. Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/wwii.html

(8) Gilmore, G.J. (2001, February 13). Women Journalists Came of Age Covering WWII. American Forces Press Service. Retrieved May 20, 2014 from http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=45716

(9) Moorcraft, P.L., & Taylor, P.M. (2008). Shooting the Messenger: The Political Impact of War Reporting. Potomac Books, Inc.

(10) Last Word (1950, July 31). TIME. Retrieved May 23, 2014 from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,821303,00.html

(11) Marguerite Higgins: Bibliographical History. Syracuse University Digital Libraries. Retrieved May 23, 2014 from http://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/h/higgins_m.htm

(12) Bellafaire, J.  America’s Military Women – The Journey Continues. Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/WHM982.html

(13) Women Who Served: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS/WASP). National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved on May 21, 2014 from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/a_people_at_war/women_who_served/wafs_wasp.html

(14) Stamberg, S. (2010, March 9). Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls. National Public Radio. Retrieved May 19, 2014 from http://www.npr.org/2010/03/09/123773525/female-wwii-pilots-the-original-fly-girls

(15) World War II: Women’s Army Corps. Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/wwii(wac).html


Related Resources

Video: Female WWII Pilots Honored in Parade (CNN) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp33qhrDBZI

Book: Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chappelle  http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Wind-Dickey-Chapelle-Bluejacket/dp/1557504199/ref=pd_cp_b_0

Library of Congress: Women Come to the Front – Online Exhibit of Eight Women Journalists from WWII http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf/

National Women’s History Museum’s Online Exhibit “Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and It’s Leaders” https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/SenecaFalls.html


This post 5 Facts About Women and War That Will Blow Your Stereotypes Out of the Water, written by Juliana Brafa and Julie Gomez, appeared first on DomesticFeminist.com.

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