Who Were the First Women to Serve in the Military?

February 7, 2023
Who Were the First Women to Serve in the Military?

Women like her began serving in World War II, when a shortage of military personnel created a demand for female service members.

Since 1776, the five branches of the armed forces have been created. Millions of Americans have served – and many have died – in defending this country in service to an ideal greater than themselves.

The first 26 women to serve clearly understood this sense of duty. Here is a list of first women who join the military by branches.

The First Soldier

An indentured servant, 21-year-old Deborah Sampson joined the Continental Army in May 1782.  Because women were not allowed to serve in the military, she disguised herself as Robert Shurtleff.

Sampson was wounded in combat, sustaining a sabre wound to the head and a gunshot wound to her right thigh.  She used a penknife to remove the round in order to preserve her secret identity.

In time Sampson’s commander officer, Gen. John Patterson, learned of her gender. He notified Gen. George Washington, who authorized her honorable discharge from the Army in 1784.

The Sacred Twenty and the First Sailor

The first women to serve in the Navy were nurses.

In May of 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an appropriations bill which authorized the establishment of the Nurse Corps as a unique staff corps in the Navy.

Twenty female nurses enlisted and were assigned to the Naval Hospital, Washington, DC.  There were no quarters for them, so the women rented a house and ran their own mess.

Known as the Sacred Twenty, Esther Hasson, Lenah Higbee, Mary Dubose, Adah M. Pendleton, Elizabeth M. Hewitt, Della V. Knight, J. Beatrice Bowman, Martha E. Pringle, Elizabeth Wells, Sara B. Myer, Clare L. DeCeu, Elisabeth Leonhardt, Estelle Hine, Ethel R. Parsons, Florence Milburn, Boniface Small, Victoria White, Isabelle Roy, Margaret Murray and Sara Cox, served the suffering.

However, 20-year-old Loretta Perfectos Walsh was the first woman to enlist in the Navy in 1917.

She became the first woman to serve on active duty; the first woman to serve in any branch of the military in other than a nursing capacity; and the first female petty officer.

Within three weeks of Walsh’s enlistment, over 200 women followed in her wake and joined the Navy.

The First Marine

The first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps, Opha May Johnson, was the 39-year-old wife of an orchestra conductor.

Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, had opened the Marine Corps Reserves to women for service in clerical roles, enabling male Marines to serve overseas.

By the luck of the draw, Johnson was first in line with 304 other women to enlist on August 13, 1918.

She earned the rank of Sergeant – and the right to be called a United States Marine.

The First to Join the Air Force

When both her sons were shot down during World War II, Esther Blake became a woman on a mission – to enlist and help end the war.

She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and served with distinction. Discharged a year later, she reenlisted in the Army Air Force in 1947.

Shortly thereafter, the Air Force was established as a separate branch on September 17, 1947.

Determined to be the first woman to enlist the newest branch of service, Blake transferred from the Army to the newly formed Air Force.

On July 8, 1948, a minute after the start of the first duty day of the newly established Women in the Air Force, the 51-year-old woman raised her right hand to become the first woman to serve with the guardians of the skies.

The Coast Guard’s First Three Women

Twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker had joined the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve as America became involved in World War I.

As the European conflict grew in intensity and the U.S. went to war, the 19-year-old Baker twins decided in 1918 to transfer from the reserve to the Coast Guard.

It is common for twins to serve together, as detailed in our articles of these twin sisters in the Air Force, and these twin brothers who served in the Army.

Very close to the time of the twin’s transfer, Myrtle R. Hazard became the first woman to officially take the oath of enlistment.  She became the Coast Guard’s first female electrician.

A Mother’s Day Salute

It is good to recall these past pioneers of women’s equality in the military and to respect today’s female warriors – many of whom are mothers.

“As the actress Merle Dandridge pointed out, “As women, we have super powers.  We are sisters. We are healers. We are mothers. We are goddess warriors.”

The first women to serve would agree.

Read our article on eight women veterans whose service might surprise you.

5/5 (1 Review)

Related Articles