The Service, Sacrifices, and Bravery of Women in Wartime

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park — National Park Service

National parks preserve military history and our nation’s stories amidst times of war. They’re found in places like Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, that stretches from Hawai'i, Alaska, and California.

Wartime in America brings to mind accounts of George Washington and his men, spending a bone-chilling winter at Valley Forge and stories of the Buffalo Soldiers who were based out of the Presidio before fighting in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.

While these servicemen made history, their efforts were bolstered by women. Their heroinism is also commemorated in national parks, providing insights into the sometimes lesser-known accounts of war and a more complete view of our past.

Revolutionary War

Five women in colonial era clothing standing in a log cabin at Valley Forge National Historical Park

Reenactors at Valley Forge National Historical Park

RBSchier/NPS

At a time when the usage of wigs by both sexes was the closest men and women came to equality, the contributions of women in the war effort were often overlooked by the men who recounted the history. In fact, given their anonymity, some housewives and young girls who worked as maids and cooks would eavesdrop on conversations between soldiers and officers at enemy camps. They were among some of the first women to spy on behalf of the United States, and they were certainly not the last.

Others took more conspicuous action. Accounts were written of two women who took control of cannons during battle, after their husbands were injured (Margaret Corbin at Fort Washington and Mary Ludwig Hays at the Battle of Monmouth).

At Ninety Six National Historic Site, visitors can learn about how sisters-in-law captured a British dispatch rider, speedily sending along the intercepted message to an American general during the siege. One woman, Deborah Sampson, even enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts regiment, taking on the alias “Robert Shurtleff” before ultimately being hit by a musket ball in her leg.

Wives of soldiers made their own impact, joining their significant others at camp. Perhaps most famously, Martha Washington joined her husband at Valley Forge, keeping the household running and organizing meals and entertainment for staff. Valley Forge National Historical Park keeps alive the memory of officer wives and other camp women who kept morale high, laundry clean, and camp chores completed. Beyond encampments, women took on additional responsibilities as the men left for war, even taking over their husbands’ roles such as tavern keepers.

U.S.-Mexico War

By 1846, the role of women in America had changed little since the country gained independence.  During the U.S.-Mexico War, “camp followers” assisted with cooking laundry, cleaning, and nursing the sick. Women could follow their enlisted husbands, and each company hired four women to do laundry. Although women were essential in keeping the troops clean, fed, and healthy, they were even more critical in keeping morale high.

Women who shone during the U.S.-Mexico War are remembered at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park. Known to the soldiers as the “Maid of Monterrey,” Maria Josefa Zozaya, worked throughout the Battle of Monterey to bring food and water to both sides. Meanwhile, at the siege of Fort Texas, Sarah Bowman refused protection underground, instead carrying food and water to “her boys.” After she passed away, Bowman received a burial with full military honors.

Civil War

Suffragists had met just 13 years before the outbreak of the Cold War to create their Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention. Though their work was revolutionary and set the stage for later strides in the fight for women’s suffrage, their new ideas on gender equality were quickly pushed aside as the nation turned its attention to abolition.

Women in the north joined “ladies’ aid” societies by the thousands, preparing packages for soldiers and gathering medical supplies. They also hosted large-scale fundraisers on behalf of the troops and filled roles that later became careers long past the war’s end.

Women also took to politics at this time. Abolitionists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were part of a group committed to gaining 40,000 signatures, demanding that the government commit to the complete emancipation of slaves. Women of color in New York City and Philadelphia also worked for United States Colored Troops, protesting the segregation of streetcars in their cities.

During this chapter of war, military hospital relied heavily on women. Some 20,000 women on both sides assisted both in military hospitals and on the battlefield, though few came with formal medical training. This role was more common in the south for black women, as Southern societal norms dictated that this position was not fit for white women.

Historic image of a young female, Clara Barton, in 1850

Clara Barton [1850]

National Park Service

Nurses like Clara Barton and Sarah Palmer became renowned caregivers during the Civil War, paving the way for future women to join the medical field. The work of female nurses is remembered at Petersburg National Battlefield, where nurses aided the sick and dying at General Grant’s headquarters at City Point.

Best known for her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad before the war, Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous women to have served in the Civil War. Given her experience traveling through the marshlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she was selected to travel to Port Royal in South Carolina where she helped recruit black troops, nurse soldiers, and even spied on behalf of the Union. She became the first woman in U.S. military history to lead an armed raid, as she helped destroy Confederate supply lines and free hundreds of enslaved people on June 1, 1863. Tubman was not the only woman to act as a spy during the war. 

Both the North and South were aided by women working as spies. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave, was hired as a servant in Jefferson Davis’s home. The Confederate president incorrectly assumed that Bowser was illiterate. Bowser read important documents left on Davis’s desk, memorized the information, and passed it along to Union officers.

A few other brave women even disguised themselves as men to fight on the battlefield. Sarah Wakeman and Jennie Hodgers were two of the most famous examples of women who did just that, though their exploits were met with varying degrees of success.

Many women in the North began to work in factories or shops for the first time, assisting with the creation of cartridges, uniforms, and other supplies. Women were also left to negotiate for relief money or to claim pensions. The increase in communication between government and women created a new awareness of women as citizens with their own rights.

The Civil War thrust women from every social stratum into new situations, from needing to learn how to harvest to slaughtering animals. Most also dealt with new financial engagements for the first time, hiring help on their own or budgeting a small military paycheck. Many also became property owners as husbands were killed on the battlefield. These new experiences slowly began to elucidate the capabilities and strengths that women had always had.  

WWI

Black and white photo of the female workers, Yeomanettes, during World War I
US Naval Historical Center

By the early 20th century, a new wave of feminists took up the fight for women’s suffrage — this time, in our nation’s capital. However, the arrival of WWI meant that Wilson dismissed their pickets and demands as an annoyance — categorizing their efforts as treasonous.

While those women were being jailed, others were focusing their attention on supporting the war efforts. Some 30,000 women served in nursing units through the U.S. military and others decrypted and translated information. The Army Signal Corps recruited many female bilingual telephone operators.

During this time, the U.S. Navy offered educated, white women the chance to enlist and join the Naval Reserve. These servicewomen worked a 6-day, 60-hour workweek and by 1918, several hundred female yeomen worked in the offices at Boston Navy Yard and other Navy offices in the area. Likewise, the Boston Navy Yard, preserved via the Boston National Historical Park, was willing to hire civilian women for unskilled positions. Here, 150 women were hired to assist in the ropewalk facility, though little is known about these women today.

WWII

A historic sepia photo of a large group of people, men and women, who worked at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II

Men and women of the Double Bottom Assembly during World War II

National Park Service

Rosie the Riveter, memorialized at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in California, is one of the most iconic wartime women. The park is located in the city of Richmond, where 56 different war industries were once represented. Though the greatest number of female wartime workers were employed in the West, about 12 million women joined the defense industries and support services across the nation. They took up jobs in shipyards, warehouses, offices, and other locations that supported the wartime needs.

In 1943, Congress allowed women to enlist as soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps, dropping the WAAC’s auxiliary status. Between 1942 and 1950, over 150,000 women served in the U.S. Army worldwide. Women across the U.S. joined the efforts, including 200 Puerto Rican women who enlisted in the WACS and the Navy’s WAVES. One unit of the WAC was established on Governors Island in 1946. These soldiers were sworn in and were sent in as reinforcements – some were even held as POWs in Japan and other countries.

Maria Sally Salazar was one of the many U.S. Latinas who proudly joined the WAC, despite the prejudice many endured. At the age of 19, Maria did not qualify to join the fight; nevertheless, she borrowed her sister’s birth certificate and spent 18 months in the Philippines. Amidst the jungle, she assisted in an administrative building and tended to the wounded. Thousands of other Mexican-Americans of both sexes joined the war efforts too, fulfilling duties across the defense industry.

Vietnam Women's Memorial

Jeff Kubina/Flikr

Since the world wars, women have continued to play an essential role in the military and the workforce. Their names can be seen at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and their stories can be heard at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial honors the American women who served in Vietnam and includes eight yellowwood trees surrounding a sculpture. Each tree stands in honor of a military woman who died in the conflict.

The role women have played during times of war cannot be overlooked. The contributions of so many brave civilians and servicewomen will never be forgotten because these stories are preserved within your national parks. #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque to understand their sacrifices and to stand in the places where they made history.

Comments

Good article but missing are the Women Ordnance Workers ( WOW) from the Springfield Armory, Springfield Mass. My Mom was a WOW during World War II along with hundreds others who kept the factory running as the men left for war. Love to see a story about them.
CHRISTOPHER
MELLEY
This would make for an interesting Ken Burns documentary wouldn't it?
Lori
Bolton

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