By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
They are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grandmothers. They are factory workers, medical personnel and professional ballerinas. They are on the front lines for democracy in Ukraine.
According to CNN, 15% of Ukrainians currently fighting Russia are women. Many are not officially members of the Ukrainian military.
Women have long been considered incapable of fighting alongside men, yet women around the world have been active combatants for as long as wars have existed, including on the North American continent before our nation began.
During the American Revolution, women served as nurses, spies, scouts and cooks, and some chose to hide their gender to function as soldiers on the battlefields. The reasons varied: Women took up arms to protect their homes or aspired to fight alongside their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
The reasons remained the same – with the addition of financial incentives – almost 100 years later. A woman disguised as a man in the Union Army could make almost double that of the average servant. As many as 1,000 women disguised themselves as men and enlisted in both Confederate and Union legions. Women like Rosetta Wakeman, who joined the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry as Lyons Wakeman, weren’t legally allowed to fight in the American Civil War. Wakeman served on guard duty in Alexandria before moving to the front in 1864 to fight in the Red River Campaign.
According to the Smithsonian, enlistment physical exams were simplistic. Since adolescent boys were fighting on both sides, it was relatively easy for a woman to pass as a young soldier. By cutting her hair, binding her breasts, wearing loose male clothing and rubbing dirt on her face, a woman in this era had a good chance of succeeding with her masquerade – unless she was revealed when treated for injuries. To enhance the deception, a number of women adopted behaviors such as cursing and spitting tobacco. Forms of identification were almost non-existent. To join the ranks, an alias like Wakeman’s was all that was necessary.
Because women resorted to clandestine methods to enlist for battle, the exact number who served in the Civil War and American Revolution is unknown.
Today, women may enlist as themselves. A Huffington Post report includes a sampling of major milestones for women in the military:
• 1917 to 1918: U.S. women were officially permitted to join the military. During the last two years of World War I, 33,000 women joined as nurses and support staff.
• 1941 to 1945: Four hundred thousand women served at home and abroad in non-combat roles during World War II.
• 1948: The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act entitles women to veteran’s benefits and grants them permanent, regular and reserve status in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
• 1975: Women were permitted to enter U.S. military academies as students for the first time.
• 2013: The U.S. Department of Defense announces all military positions would open to women by 2016 – creating the opportunity for women to fill 220,000 combat positions.
In November 2008, Ann E. Dunwoody, born at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, became the first woman in military history to achieve the rank of four-star general. During her 38-year career, Dunwoody’s commands included the Military Traffic Management Command/Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command in Alexandria. She officially retired in 2012. The Foundation for Women Warriors quotes General Dunwoody: “… Today, women are in combat, that is just a reality. Today, what was once a band of brothers has truly become a band of brothers and sisters.”
In 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations found that women represented 16% of U.S. enlisted forces and 19% of the officer corps. Thousands of women have been decorated for valor and many have given their lives.
Today there are more than 100,000 women veterans in the Commonwealth. At a recent Women’s History Month event hosted by Alexandria’s American Legion Post 24, historic women military figures were honored – one of them being social reformer, suffragist and Alexandrian Kate Waller Barrett, who served as national president of the American Legion Auxiliary from1922 to 1923. The George Washington Post also recognized local retired and active-duty military women.
These brave Alexandrians join women around the world in defending democracy – they are indeed a “band of sisters.” We thank them for their service.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.