Four Women First to Enlist

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. 

U.S. Army

Photo of an engraving of Deborah Sampson
Engraving by George Graham, Public Domain

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.

U.S. Navy 

Smiling Loretta Walsh in Uniform with her hat at an angle and her hand raised as if she's taking an oath
U.S. Navy Memorial, Public Domain

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

black and white portrait photo of Opha Mae Johnson in a dress

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

Official Air Force portrait photo of Esther McGowin Blake in uniform
Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute, Public domain,

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.

Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin

It’s July and fitting that this month’s history posts be about Margaret Cochran Corbin, born November 12, 1751 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. A U.S. Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin was the first woman paid a soldier’s pension by the Continental Congress.

Public Domain image of engraving of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, a revolutionary war hero margaret corbin

Early Life

Born to Robert Cochran, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Sarah, Margaret was orphaned at the age of five. While she and her brother were away from home, Native Americans raided her home. Her father died, and they kidnapped her mother. Her mother’s brother adopted her and her brother.


Twenty-one-year-old Margaret married John Corbin from Virginia in 1772. Presumably they moved to Pennsylvania.

The Revolutionary War

Her husband joined the Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775 or 1776.  A matross, an artilleryman, John served on a cannon crew.

Margaret, like many other wives at the time, became a camp follower. Camp followers cooked, cleaned and repaired clothes for the soldiers to earn money. They also cared for the sick and wounded. And camp followers brought the soldiers water to drink and to cool the cannons. The soldiers called these women, Molly Pitcher.

John manned one of two cannons at Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, when George Washington retreated with the Continental Army to White Plains, New York. John and about 600 other soldiers remained to defend the fort against the Hessians (German soldiers hired by the British to help the war effort). During the battle, John was killed.

Margaret Turns Soldier

After the enemy killed her husband, Margaret took over his role at the cannon. If she had not, the cannon crew could not have continued to fight.

Other soldiers commented on “Captain Molly’s” steady aim and sure-shot.

During the battle, Margaret took enemy fire. It severely injured her left jaw and breast and nearly severed her left arm at her shoulder.

The commander of Fort Washington surrendered to the British. Margaret and the surviving soldiers became prisoners of war. Because of her injuries, they released her on parole a few days later.

After the Battle of Fort Washington

After her parole, Margaret went to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, NY. She never fully recovered from her injuries. Her left arm remained useless for the rest of her life. 

On June 29, 1779, the State of Pennsylvania granted her $30 to help her and passed her case on to the Continental Congress’s Board of War.

The Board of War approved a continuing allowance for her. It equaled half the amount her male counterparts received. They also gave her clothing to replace the ones damaged when she’d been injured.

The Board’s decision made her the first woman to receive a pension from the United States. It also put her on military rolls until the end of the war.

She joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point in 1777. She helped care for the wounded.

In 1782, Corbin married a wounded soldier, but he died a year later.

She was formally discharged from service in 1783. The story of the rest of her life is unknown.


She died in Highland Falls, New York, on January 16, 1800, at 48.

Honoring Margaret Corbin

Memorial erected by DAR honoring US Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin

In 1925 the New York State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and other local historians, began extensive research to locate and identify Margaret Corbin’s burial site.

A year later, they found her burial site. On March 16, 1926, they exhumed Margaret Corbin’s body. They re-interred her body at West Point Cemetery with full military honors. DAR donated a monument to honor her.

Every May since 1926, DAR honors Margaret Corbin with Margaret Corbin Day, which includes ceremonial wreath-laying at her Monument at West Point Cemetery.

A Surprising Discovery

In October 2016, West Point Cemetery extension project Included placement of a retaining wall near Margaret’s grave. The digging disturbed Margaret’s grave. They recovered Margaret’s body to determine if the digging had damaged it.

Forensic analysis of the body determined it belonged to a male, not Margaret.

Legacy of a Revolutionary War Hero

Though little more has been found out about Margaret Corbin’s life and death and her grave remains undiscovered, the DAR and the Army continue to honor Margaret’s sacrifice.

In 1976, women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of women at the United States Military Academy in West Point. That same year,  the Margaret Corbin Forum was created. The Forum’s purpose is to educate the Corps on women’s roles in the military and to resolve issues integrating women into the Academy.

Each year since, the DAR presents the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award to a distinguished woman in military service.

In May 2018, DAR held a rededication ceremony honoring Margaret Corbin for her service and legacy. The DAR continues to search for her grave and documentation of the life of our Revolutionary War Hero, Margaret Corbin.