Each May, we celebrate Memorial Day, remembering the men and women who have fought to defend our shores throughout the history of our country. Women fought in the Revolutionary War, some in their husband's stead after he was killed; others disguised as men. Since that time, women have served in many functions in furtherance of war efforts from scouts and spies; to nurses and doctors to the wounded; to workers who produced the war materiel; to pilots, soldiers and sailors; and as leaders of our country's military undertakings. We salute their efforts and honor their sacrifice this year for Memorial Day.
Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War. Wounded more than once, she treated her wounds herself to avoid discovery. owever, when she came down with a fever, was rendered unconscious and was taken to a hospital, her secret was revealed. Honorably discharged, she later was the subject of a book and went on a speaking tour. Sampson eventually received a pension for her military service.
Harriet Tubman is best known for her role in rescuing enslaved people through the Underground Railroad as a "conductor." During the Civil War, she served as a soldier, spy and nurse. Later, she settled in Auburn, New York, not far from Seneca Falls and became active in the women's rights movement. Tubman has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.
Deborah Sampson and Harriet Tubman paved the path for the women who entered the workforce during World War II. Rosie the Riveter symbolizes the approximately three million women who worked on war equipment during World War II and built the ships, tanks, planes and other materiel needed in support of the war effort. The famous poster shows Rosie under the words "We Can Do It!" The U.S. needed to gear up its manufacturing capability very quickly and women were recruited for that effort. The Rosies paved the way for their daughters and granddaughters to be in the workforce of today.
The Rosies were one of the groups of women whose efforts were significant during World War II. Another of those groups was the WASPs -- the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASPs, over 1,000 strong, flew American military aircraft in noncombat service missions during the war. They were the first woman trained to fly military aircraft. In 2009, President Obama signed legislation awarding the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. The WASPs were led by Lieutenant Colonel Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran.
World War II was also important to Major General Jeanne Holm's military career. After enlisting as a truck driver during the war, Holm attended Officer Candidate School, and then received a commission in the Air Force. From 1965 to 1973, she served as Director of Women in the Air Force where she worked to achieve equality for women in the armed services. In 1971, she became the first woman in the Air Force to be promoted to Brigadier General. She achieved another first for women across all of the armed services in 1973 when she was promoted to Major General. Among her many honors, Holm has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Brigadier General Wilma Vaught benefitted from the efforts of Major General Holm. During her 29-year military career, she achieved many firsts, paving the way for the women in the armed services today. One of these firsts was the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing during an operational deployment. Vaught will be most remembered for her significant efforts to establish the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation and raise the funding for a national memorial to honor women's military service. Vaught has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Aeronautical engineer Sheila Widnall became the first woman to lead a branch of the military when she became Secretary of the Air Force in 1993 (nominated by President Bill Clinton). An expert in the field of fluid dynamics, Widnall is a pilot and a faculty member at MIT. Her engineering accomplishments have been recognized through her election to the National Academy of Engineering. In addition to many other honors and accomplishments, in 2003, she was appointed to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Widnall has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
The women featured in this article are all profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We are proud to stand on their shoulders and recognize that the rights and privileges women and men have today in this country are a result of their efforts.