Before 1914 it was a man’s world. Men ran the country, worked for a living, and fought the wars. A woman fighting beside men was unimaginable. Then on July 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. That assassination set off a chain of events that escalated beyond their borders and into what we call World War I. And by the end of the war on November 11, 1918, more than 200,000 women were in uniform and serving their countries. On Veteran’s Day, we salute four women first to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Army has not officially stated who was the first woman to enlist. However, historians credit Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) as the first woman who served in the Army.
An indentured servant, Sampson disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtleff. Her story isn’t clear, but she enlisted in 1781 or 1782. She was twenty-one. Wounded several times in battle, her physician eventually discovered her gender and kept it a secret.
But her physician’s niece became enamored of the young battle-scarred soldier. Not wanting to lead her on, Sampson wrote the girl a letter which ended up being shown to Sampson’s commanding officer.
General George Washington authorized her honorable discharge from the Army, and she returned to her home in Massachusetts in 1784.
Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925) was twenty years old when she enlisted in the U.S. Navy on March 17, 1917, as a Chief Yeoman (F). That made her the first woman officially allowed to serve as a woman in any of the United States armed forces, as anything other than as a nurse. Sixteen days after she enlisted, Congress agreed with President Woodrow Wilson and declared war.
She served until July 1919, when she and the remaining Yeomen (F) were all released from active duty.
Little is known about Loretta. You can learn more in the book, The First, The Few, The Forgotten by Jean E Ebbert and Mary-Beth Hall.
U.S. Marine Corps
Opha May Johnson (1879-1955) worked as a civil service employee at Marine headquarters. She was the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. The first in a line of 300 women, she enlisted on Aug. 13, 1918. Her assignments consisted mainly of typing and military office work. Nevertheless, her place as the first female in the Marine Corps broke barriers for the future.
Read more about the history of women in the Marines.
U.S. Air Force
Esther McGowin Blake (1897–1979) a widow with two sons serving during WWII, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1944 during the first hour of the first day the Air Force announced that women could serve. And in July 1948, when they authorized a new branch for women, she was the first woman to enlist for regular Air Force duty. Her duties were mostly clerical, freeing up soldiers so they could fight.
She continued to serve until 1954.
Women in the Armed Forces
Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman to serve on active duty. Women before her disguised themselves as men and served. No one knows how many did this, some may never have been discovered.
Thanks to all the women who disguised themselves in order to serve. Thanks to the 4 women first to enlist. And thanks to women like Margaret Corbin and Susan Ahn Cuddy and Josephine Nesbit and so many others who broke the next barrier after them.
Four Women First to Enlist
These four women and many more broke down the first barrier to women in the U.S. Armed Forces. Their service helped their country, their male counterparts, and the future of women who wanted to serve. Honor them on this Veteran’s Day 2020.
Today more and more women are joining the U.S. Armed forces. They are breaking next barriers thanks to these four women first to enlist. It isn’t an easy road. Their challenges are many.
Past, present and future, honor each of the women in the U.S. Armed Forces. And respect and honor all who serve regardless of their gender, their identity, their skin color, their religion, or their politics. And a special thank you to these four women first to enlist.