First Prize, 2016 Naval History Essay Contest: The Women Who Made it Possible
General George Washington’s Continental Army. Her name was Deborah Sampson, and she had disguised herself as a man to take up arms.1 She is the matriarch of women in the U.S. military, and while she became famous in her own time, few present-day Americans know her name.
We have forgotten the names of many of the women who made the most significant contributions to building the world’s finest military. They served when they were not supposed to, both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, and defied convention and regulation in the military service of the American republic. These women disguised themselves as men and served as infantry soldiers centuries before the Marine Corps would allow women to attempt infantry school. They conducted pre–D-Day reconnaissance missions parachuting in as field intelligence officers decades before U.S. Special Operations Command announced that women could attempt to become Green Berets and SEALs.
Women such as Deborah Sampson, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Virginia Hall, and an entire generation of post-9/11 female special operations enablers bent the rules, served honorably, and began to change perceptions of the value of women’s contribution to the armed forces. Their service unlocked a door for other women to walk through, and they became the recognized standard-bearers—the “firsts”—of gender integration and progress in the years that followed.
The First American Female Combat Veteran
Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army under the alias Robert Shurtlieff in 1781; she was a patriot seeking service to her young country and adventure beyond her Massachusetts village. Despite her small stature, none suspected she was a woman. Like her male comrades, “[s]he bore the great fatigue and did extraordinary work, unwilling to be outdone by the men in the trenches, and was often exposed to fire.”2 Shot in the thigh in battle in 1782, she pried the bullet out of her leg with her bare hands to avoid the field hospital, where her true identity surely would have been revealed.3
When an illness later in the year led to her regiment’s doctor learning that information anyway, he kept her secret until she was to be discharged at the end of the war. The doctor sent a letter to her commanding general, reconciling her alias and her true identity. In 1783 she received an honorable discharge and went on to lead a life of traditional domesticity—with one exception. In 1805 Sampson was granted a military pension. Her husband even received a “widow’s” pension when she died in 1827.
Deborah Sampson’s story disrupts the conventionally accepted narrative that American women’s military service began in 1901 with the founding of the Army Nurse Corps. While Sampson certainly was exceptional and had to disguise herself as a man to serve, she was unequivocally accepted as a good soldier. Her efforts were acknowledged by her peers as well as by her government. She appears to have had an easier time receiving her veterans’ benefits in 1783 than do many present-day veterans. Sampson was the first American woman who proved that with a single standard and common purpose, a soldier’s gender has little to do with her competence under fire. Women’s service in the infantry is as old as the U.S. military itself.
Soldier, Nurse, Spy Recognized by Congress
Sarah Emma Edmonds immigrated to the United States from Canada to escape an arranged marriage and, by her account, a “tyrannical” father. When the Civil War broke out, she wrote: “But the great question to be decided, was, what can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama?”4 She disguised herself as a man, assumed the alias Frank Thompson, and served as a combat medic and spy for the Union Army for two years. She deserted only when her wounds became too severe. She hoped she could treat herself and return to active duty, knowing that seeking treatment from a military hospital would be certain to result in a discharge. But she never returned to the soldiers’ ranks, serving instead as a nurse under her true identity from 1863 to 1865.
Edmonds was not unique in her decision to disguise herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. While the actual number of women who served in the conflict is unknown, Mary Livermore, associate member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and eventual member of the women’s suffrage movement, wrote in her 1888 memoir that she was “convinced that a larger number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or other, than was dreamed of.”5 Scholars have uncovered the names of more than 400 women who risked life, limb, and reputation out of patriotism, for better pay than was available to women, or to follow a male relative.6
These women, in defiance of strict Victorian gender roles, served in combat when they were not even supposed to be on a battlefield. Even more remarkable is that when they were discovered, their service usually received positive newspaper coverage, they were granted honorable discharges, and their male peers accepted them as one of their own. Regarding the discovery of a woman in the ranks, one newspaper exclaimed, “When our women become heroes we need entertain no fears for the safety of the Republic.”7
Two women are known to have received pensions after the war. Sarah Emma Edmonds continued to suffer from service-connected ailments and found herself in dire need of compensation. When she applied to Congress for her pension in the 1880s, the surviving members of her regiment aided her in gaining recognition as Frank Thompson, with whom they had served. Congress granted her request.8 A second female soldier, Jennie Hodgers, continued to live as a man under her assumed male name after the war. She collected her pension until an old-age hospitalization revealed her sex. With her identity as a woman now known, her local Grand Army of the Republic chapter and former comrades from her wartime regiment advocated on her behalf, and she continued to receive her pension.9
The service of women combat soldiers during the Civil War challenged “their comrades in arms, commanding officers, government administrators, journalists, and the general public who read about them, and forced them to consider not only why a woman would swap a dress for a uniform, but also what this phenomenon implied about preconceived notions about women’s abilities, and ‘proper’ sphere.”10 The often-forgotten but significant phenomenon of women soldiers in the Civil War set an early and clear example that women could succeed in the most austere and horrific of combat environments.
No Successful D-Day Without Women
Women have served in special operations forces (SOF) since the units’ early days in World War II.The Allies would have had a much more difficult time winning the conflict had it not been for women serving in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the organization that spawned both SOF and the Central Intelligence Agency.11 Operation Jedburgh special reconnaissance teams, which parachuted into France in advance of and after the Allied invasion of Normandy, often were led behind enemy lines by women in the OSS, British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and French Resistance. Lesser known than the “Rosie the Riveter” munitions workers on the home front, a number of women took on more dangerous, less conventional roles, including as intelligence operatives in the OSS—the most notable of whom was Virginia Hall.
Born into wealth and privilege in Baltimore, Hall committed herself to a lifetime of international service. After an education in Europe in the 1930s, she sought to serve in the State Department, but the loss of a leg in an accident disqualified her. She traveled Europe on a wooden prosthetic leg and was in France when World War II began. After that country fell to Nazi Germany, Hall fled to England. Almost immediately, her fluency in French and worldliness led her to work for the British SOE. She deployed to France, where she operated behind enemy lines organizing resistance groups. Hall transferred to the OSS in 1944 and was assigned to organize a Jedburgh circuit in preparation for the D-Day invasion and for when the Allies would advance farther into France.12 In 1945 she received the Distinguished Service Cross. Hall remained in the OSS through its transition to the CIA, where she worked as an analyst for decades.13
Any hesitance to employ qualified women volunteering for hazardous duty in a time of crisis was brushed aside by the necessity of total war. OSS head Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan wrote in the postwar years that “[t]he heart of American wartime intelligence was a collection of highly implausible ‘operators’. . . [who] showed what intellect, diligence, courage, and willingness to get around can accomplish.”14 Virginia Hall is one of dozens of American and Allied women whose capabilities were too significant for their governments to ignore. They had the same intellect and thirst for adventure as their male counterparts. Their gender proved an asset in interacting with local populations and enemy Nazis; women were under less scrutiny and suspicion.15
The legacy of the women of the OSS was so noteworthy that in 2015 it was cited by the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, General Joseph Votel, on the announcement that all positions in SOF—including operator roles such as with the SEALs—would be opening to women.16
Female SOF Enablers
The women who made the greatest impact in the post-9/11 era are largely anonymous, having served with silent honor and upholding the SOF ethos to not seek recognition for one’s actions. Indeed, many remain on active duty. Before U.S. Army Captain Kristen Griest, First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, and Major Lisa Jaster became the first women to earn Ranger tabs, before Naval Special Warfare Command announced women would be permitted to attempt SEAL training, even before cultural support teams, women had served as enablers—or combat support—to special forces teams for decades.
Since the conflicts following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and even long before, SOF has recruited women to serve as enablers to execute 11 of the 12 core tasks established in Joint Publication 3-05, the doctrine for special operations. They include special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, civil affairs operations, military information support operations, and information operations.17
Women who served as combat-support enablers—from human intelligence collectors and interrogators to explosive ordinance disposal technicians—found themselves fighting alongside SOF operators “outside the wire.” The reason was simple: They possessed a critical subject-matter expertise that the operators lacked, and they happened to be assigned to that deployment rotation. It was, in short, because they were there.
Cultural support teams (CSTs) were the last proof that both SOF and the public needed to support the elimination of gender-based barriers. As in previous conflicts, the exigency of war caused decision makers to set aside notions of prescribed gender roles and call on women to serve in a new role. Ethos, the official publication of Naval Special Warfare, explains, “Cultural Support Teams first came into existence in late 2010 when it became obvious to commanders that having male soldiers pat down [Afghan] women for weapons and ask them questions about enemy activity was not working, in fact it was seriously upsetting and infuriating to the very people with whom operators were trying to build trusting and productive relationships.”18 Women were brought onto the battlefield because there were some tasks men just could not do.
The public is aware of only a handful of CST members. Best known are Army First Lieutenant Ashley White and Captain Jennifer Moreno, who were killed in action alongside the SOF teams they supported. These women were the “alphas of the alphas,” incredibly physically fit, intelligent, and expected to learn in six weeks the combat skills that SOF operators learned over the course of years and repetitive work-up cycles.
Not only did CSTs excel at collecting tactical intelligence from Afghan women “on the X,” but they proved their mettle in battle, engaging in firefights in the dead of night. The New York Times reported:
The cultural support team members understood they would have to earn their place, and all they sought was a fair shot at doing so. That they received. One skeptical team of SEALs expressed doubt about taking its C.S.T. member on a mission, until she found the intelligence item they were looking for to connect an insurgent to recent attacks wrapped up in a baby’s wet diaper. The soldier had helped accomplish the night’s mission and that is what mattered.19
Women’s ability to serve in combat was no longer a secret or historical accident. Women who had proven that they had the physical and psychological strength were given the opportunity to succeed—and they did.
Since the nation’s infancy, American women have served in combat, without missing a single conflict, to work toward making the U.S. military the world’s finest. Some of the names we know are Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, who earned the Navy Cross as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps in World War I; World War II and Cold War computer scientist Rear Admiral Grace Hopper; Lieutenant Commander Darlene Iskra, the first woman to command a Navy ship; and Captain Griest, First Lieutenant Haver, and Major Jaster. All pioneers in their own right, these women have very publicly let the world know what it is possible for women to achieve in the military service of their nation.
Before these remarkable individuals broke barriers, other women paved the way so that those who followed could have an opportunity. They often served in roles that would not officially be billeted to women for decades to come yet received the acknowledgment and gratitude of their nation in the form of pensions and medals. These women were the true pioneers, who unofficially and unceremoniously served with little credit but changed perceptions of women’s capabilities. Without the service of women such as Deborah Sampson, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Virginia Hall, and present-day female SOF enablers, the U.S. military would not be the effective fighting force it is today. These largely unsung women broke convention to prove that a nation is strongest when it draws on 100 percent of its talent.
2. “Deborah Sampson,’” How She Served as a Soldier in the Revolution—Her Sex Unknown to the Army.” The New York Times, 8 October 1898.
4. S. E. Edmonds, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army (Hartford, CT: W. S. Williams & Co, 1865), 3.
5. M. Livermore, My Story of the War (Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington and Co. 1888), 120.
6. A. N. Goldstein, “What Part Am I to Act in This Great Drama,” unpublished manuscript, University of Chicago, 2009, 7.
7. “A Female Volunteer,” The Louisville Daily Journal, 26 November 1862.
8. D. Blanton & L. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 168–69.
9. Compiled military service record for Jennie Hodgers, alias Albert D. J. Cashier, 95th Illinois Infantry, RG 94, and pension application case file C 2573248, Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
10. Goldstein, “What Part Am I,” 14.
11. E. P. McIntosh, Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 13–14.
12. Ibid., 122–23.
13. Ibid., 127.
14. W. J. Donovan, “Intelligence: Key to Defense,” Life, 30 September 1946, 108.
15. A. N. Goldstein, “The First Women in SOF: Women Operatives in the OSS and SOE as a Framework for the Modern Enabler,” Special Operations Essay 2015, Joint Special Operations University. Tampa, FL, 25.
16. Statement from USSOCOM on SECDEF’s Women in Service Review Decision, 3 December 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgfmBANgBk8.
17. Goldstein, “The First Women,” 24.
18. D. Canales, “NSW CST: Females Fill Critical Battlefield Role,” Ethos: The Official Publication of Naval Special Warfare, 1 March 2012, 19.
19. G. T. Lemmon, “The Women of the Army Rangers’ Cultural Support Teams,” The New York Times, 14 September 2015.