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The Role of Women in the U.S. Military throughout History

military / military research / generational research / in the news / featured

With the nomination of the first female major-party presidential candidate in the United States, we are reminded about the tremendous progress that has been made in women’s rights and opportunities in our country. The U.S. Military is no exception. Women have played a valuable role in the U. S. Military since its inception. During the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War, women supported military efforts by serving primarily as nurses, seamstresses, or cooks. Some fought alongside the troops while disguised as men while others served as spies. During the two world wars, women served in positions in military intelligence, maintenance and supply, administrative support, and cryptography. In 1942 the Women Army Corps was officially created, opening more than 400 jobs to women.

Women in the Military: By the Numbers

This is My War Too!

In Formation

Women have played a valuable role in the U.S. Military, dating back to America’s earliest wars. Women’s contributions to the U.S. Military are captured in the U.S. Army’s "Women in the Army" spotlight. Source: U.S. Army, "Women in the Army"

Today, there are more than 200,000 women serving in the U. S. Military - The proportion of women serving in the U.S. Military has been on the rise since the Military became an all-volunteer force in 1973. Although the overall size of the U.S. Military has been decreasing since the early 1970’s, the number of female enlisted Service members increased by 700%. However, women continue to be underrepresented in the U.S. Military.

The representation of female Service members is not uniform across the different branches of the Military. The Navy and the Air Force have higher proportions of female Service members than the Army and the Marine Corps.

DoD Report – Women in the Military

And in terms of job selection, women are more likely to work in healthcare, administrative, or supply roles.

Policy Changes Impacting Women in the Military

In the beginning of 2013, the DoD announced new policies aimed at removing all gender-based restrictions in the Military, including lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles. By October 2015, the first three women had successfully completed the Army Ranger School, one of the most challenging training courses in the Military. Although women were not assigned to combat positions before, many were still engaged in combat while working on their supply or medical assignments. Opening all military occupations to women – including combat positions – removes some of the barriers women previously faced in terms of career advancement in the Armed Forces. Because formally assigned combat and specialty occupations are important for career progression in the Military, opening such positions to women will help integrate women across all levels of the U.S. Military.

Another result of lifting the ban on women in combat is that women can now be assigned to a combat position, regardless of whether they would like to hold such a position. Jobs are assigned depending on the needs of the Service and the qualifications of the Service member, without regard for gender. So far, these policy changes have had no immediate effect on female propensity to join the Military.

The U.S. is not alone in adopting policies to remove gender-based restrictions in the Military. France, New Zealand, Norway, Israel, and Australia all allow women to serve in combat roles. In Canada, women have been able to hold a combat position since 1989. More recently, U.A.E.’s first female fighter pilot participated in missions in Syria. Our Military force is becoming more diverse and representative of the population – a trend that will help build a more inclusive culture not just in our Armed Forces, but in our society overall.

If you have questions about the kinds of military research work that we do, please contact Megan Fischer at

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