Questions and Answers

Got questions? Contact our staff of historians, but first, check out the questions and answers below.

When did women begin serving in the US Armed Forces?
How many women have served in the American military?
Do you have casualty figures for military women?
Who were the first women generals and admirals?

When did women begin serving in the US Armed Forces?

Women have served as volunteers with the US Armed Forces throughout American history on an unofficial, temporary or as-needed basis as soldiers and spies (sometimes disguised as men), as support personnel who fed and cared for the troops and as nurses. They were called to serve with each national crisis, and then sent back to civilian life after each war.

  An AT&T Hello Girl at the switchboard in Europe during World War I.  

Finally in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the nation recognized the need for the on-going presence of women military nurses. The formation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908 created the first truly military women.

The first women who enlisted in the United States military joined the Navy and Marine Corps in World War I. Over 12,000 of them served stateside and over 200 “Hello Girls,” bilingual women telephone operators recruited by AT&T, served overseas with the US Army Signal Corps. Thousands of Army and Navy nurses, and volunteers in the American Red Cross, the YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army and American Women's Hospitals worked at home and abroad. But at war's end, they were discharged.


  Recruiting poster for the WAC during World War II. The WACs adopted the helmeted goddess, Minerva, as their symbol, shown here on the medallion in the lower right corner.  

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, women were again mobilized in new women's military components for the national defense. Massive publicity campaigns urged women to join the armed forces and “Free a Man to Fight,” and more than 400,000 women volunteered. They served stateside and overseas in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and as members of the civilian Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Eighty-seven female military nurses were prisoners-of-war. But yet again, at war's end, most women were demobilized.

Women did not receive permanent military status in the regular and reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and then-newly created Air Force until 1948 when President Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act.

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How many women have served in the American military?

Statistics on the numbers of women in the military are incomplete. Definitive figures for the early years of the American Revolution and the Civil War are difficult to determine, and recordkeeping is tentative for eras as recent as the Vietnam War. Currently, about 350,000 women comprise almost 15 percent of the active duty, reserve and guard units of the US Armed Forces. Approximate numbers of women serving at specific times are listed below. Source for these figures vary from the Department of Defense to footnoted statistics in pre-eminent publications.

Spanish-American War
World War I
21,480 in the Army Nurse Corps; 2,000 in the Navy Nurse Corps, 12,000 Yeomen(F), 305 Women Marines and 200 in the Army Signal Corps
World War II era
Korean War era
265,000. The 7,500 women deployed in theater included 36 women Marines, 421 women in the Navy, and 771 in the Air Force. The remainder were in the Army. Army, Navy and Air Force nurses accounted for 80 percent of the total.
Grenada (deployed)
Panama (deployed)
Desert Storm

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Do you have casualty figures for military women?

The casualty figures below are not definitive. Research is ongoing at the Historian's Office. These figures represent the best of our knowledge to date and include deaths from all causes: hostile fire, illness as a result of military service, and accidents that occurred in the line of duty during times of war. We do not have statistics for earlier wars, because women were not yet serving officially in the Armed Forces.
  The day before helicopter pilot Maj. Marie Rossi and her three crew members were killed in 1991, Rossi had told CNN, “...this is the moment that everybody trains for—that I've trained for—so I feel ready to meet the challenge.”  

Spanish American War: Twenty one contract nurses died from diseases such as typhoid, and malaria.

World War I: 430 casualties. Many of these were Army and Navy Nurses who died from influenza — an epidemic swept through military ports and bases in the U.S. and Europe. Two women (Army nurses stationed in Europe) were wounded by hostile fire, but did not die.

World War II: 460 casuaties. Six Army nurses died from hostile fire at Anzio Beachhead, 1944. Six Army nurses died when a Japanese suicide plane crashed into the Hospital Ship, USS Comfort near the Philippine Islands in 1945. Less than twenty others died from hostile fire in isolated incidents in North Africa, Europe, and the Southwest Pacific Area during WWII. The majority of women died from weather-related plane crashes, motor vehicle accidents, other work-related accidents, and disease. Included in this figure are 38 WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) deaths from weather related accidents, mechanical failures, and pilot training errors.

Korea: Sixteen Army, Navy and Air Force Nurses in theater or enroute to the battle theater – other servicewomen were not permitted in theater. None died directly from hostile fire. Army Nurse Genevieve Smith’s aircraft crashed en route to Korea early in the war. One Navy Nurse died when a U.S. Navy Hospital Ship was accidentally rammed by a freighter off the California coast. Eleven Navy Nurses died when their plane crashed off Kwajalein Island enroute to Japan. Captain Vera Brown, Air Force Nurse died when the plane she was assigned to crashed during a medical evacuation flight. Two other Air Force nurses also died in air crashes.

Vietnam: Eight nurses in theater or enroute to theater. One Army Nurse, Lt. Sharon Lane, died from hostile fire.

Desert Storm: Sixteen in theater or enroute to theater. Three Army women died with 25 men when a scud missile landed on a military barrack in Dhahran, and one woman died in an antipersonnel mine explosion, and another died when the aircraft she was in was shot down. Helicopter pilot Marie Rossi died after her helicopter hit a microwave tower.

USS Cole: Two enlisted women died on the USS Cole when terrorists attacked the ship on October 12, 2000.

September 11, 2001: Eight military women died on duty when terrorists attacked the Pentagon.

War on Terror: One woman Marine, a radio operator, was killed when the helicopter to which she was assigned crashed January 9, 2002 in the mountains of southwest Pakistan. This incident was not designated attributable to "Hostile Fire."

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Who were the first women generals and admirals?

  General Elizabeth Hoisington and General Anna Mae Hays at the time of their promotions to Brigadier General.  

On November 8, 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed Public Law 90-130 removing legal restrictions on women's promotions that had kept them out of the general and flag ranks. “There is no reason why we should not some day have a female Chief of Staff or even a female Commander-in-Chief,” President Johnson declared. Although the law removed ceilings on women's promotions, it did not require that the military award them.

Three years passed before the Army promoted the first women to brigadier general on June 11, 1970—Anna Mae Hays, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, and Elizabeth P. Hoisington, Women's Army Corps Director.

In 1971, The Air Force promoted Jeanne M. Holm, Director of Women in the Air Force (WAF) to brigadier general and in 1972, Alene B. Duerk, Director of the Navy Nurse Corps, became the first female admiral. Seven years later, Hazel W. Johnson of the Army Nurse Corps became the first African-American woman general in the United States military. The Marines waited until 1978 to name Margaret Brewer as their first brigadier general.

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Women in the US Military - Questions and Answers