Skip to main content

Main Area


Women who broke barriers throughout military history

  • Women who broke barriers throughout military history
    1/ The U.S. Army // Flickr

    Women who broke barriers throughout military history

    The demographics of the U.S. military have changed over the years to be more representative of the American population. Yet gender demographics in the armed services continue to be unequal, with women today representing just 16% of enlisted forces. That statistic is largely due to centuries of laws and regulations that kept women from performing many roles and duties. Consider that women couldn't fly in combat missions until 1991; didn't have access to all combat roles until 2015; and that the first woman to be deemed submarine-qualified did so in 2016.

    Despite these obstacles, American women have pushed to find ways (at times, creatively) to serve their country since the Revolutionary War. To showcase the patriotism and sacrifice of some of the greatest female warriors, analysts at Stacker compiled a list of 30 women who broke barriers throughout U.S. military history. The achievements of these women span all branches of the military and more than two centuries. The list is ranked in chronological order, with an 18th-century hero at #30 and a woman setting records in the present day at #1.

    From women who pretended to be men so they could serve during the Revolutionary and Civil wars to the first female four-star general in the U.S., here are 30 women who broke through the glass ceiling of the U.S. military.

    RELATED: 34 military terms and their meanings

  • Deborah Samson – 1782
    2/ Getty Images

    Deborah Samson – 1782

    Deborah Samson was one of several documented women who fought in the Revolutionary War. Samson disguised herself as a man and joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shurtleff. She closely guarded her secret, even removing a pistol ball from her own thigh to avoid detection by medics. Her true identity wasn't discovered until she fell ill during an epidemic more than a year into her service and received medical care. Later, the Massachusetts legislature granted Samson a pension, stating she had "exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism.”

  • Sarah Emma Edmonds – 1856
    3/ Wikimedia Commons

    Sarah Emma Edmonds – 1856

    Under the male alias of Franklin Flint Thompson, Sarah Emma Edmonds served during the Civil War. Thompson was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. in 1856 to escape a forced marriage and abusive father. Stateside, she enlisted as a male field nurse in the Union Army. She also allegedly worked as a spy who successfully infiltrated the Confederate Army.

  • Mary Edwards Walker – 1865
    4/ Matthew Brady // Wikimedia Commons

    Mary Edwards Walker – 1865

    Mary Edwards Walker became the first woman surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War. She was captured in 1864 by Confederates and was held as a prisoner of war for four months. Upon her return, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker with the Medal of Honor in 1865—the military's highest distinction. To this day, Walker is the only woman to have ever received this medal.

  • Cathay Williams – 1866
    5/ Joint Base San Antonio

    Cathay Williams – 1866

    Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. military. Using the pseudonym William Cathay, she pretended to be a man and successfully served as a Buffalo Soldier until she revealed her true identity in 1868.

  • Loretta Perfectus Walsh – 1917
    6/ Underwood and Underwood // Wikimedia Commons

    Loretta Perfectus Walsh – 1917

    Although women had worked as civilian nurses in the Navy during World War I, they were banned from other positions. That changed in 1917, when Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to enlist in the Naval Reserves. She was sworn in just one month before the United States declared war on Germany. Newspapers around the U.S. covered the breaking news, which led to heightened enlistment numbers that helped bolster the military during the conclusion of World War I.

  • Opha May Johnson – 1918
    7/ Keith Hayes // Marine Corp Photos

    Opha May Johnson – 1918

    Opha May Johnson became the first female in the United States Marine Corps in 1918. Little is known about her time in the corps, but historians do know she served with 300 other women during World War I. Their role? To resume office jobs at Marine Corps headquarters for men who would be shipping out to France. The patronizing nickname for these women—"Marinettes"—was dropped by World War II as respect for their vital role grew.

  • Lt. Annie G. Fox – 1942
    8/ National Archives Photo

    Lt. Annie G. Fox – 1942

    In 1942, Lt. Annie G. Fox became the first woman in U.S. history to be awarded a Purple Heart. Fox helped care for the wounded at Hickam Field during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Fox was not injured, but nevertheless received the Purple Heart for her "singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.”

  • Dorothy Tuttle – 1942
    9/ Coast Guard Compass

    Dorothy Tuttle – 1942

    Dorothy Tuttle was the first-ever recruit to join the SPARs, otherwise known as the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves. Women in this organization served the U.S. military by taking over office duties for men needed elsewhere during World War II.


  • Lt. Elsie S. Ott – 1943
    10/ U.S. Air Force Photo

    Lt. Elsie S. Ott – 1943

    Lt. Elsie S. Ott was tasked assigned as flight nurse to bring five seriously ill patients from India to Washington D.C. during World War II in what was the first intercontinental aeromedical evacuation. At the time, Ott had never flown in an airplane before and was without any evacuation training. Ott successfully brought home the patients, and in so doing earned the distinction of being the first woman in U.S. history to receive the Air Medal.

  • Ester Blake – 1948
    11/ Joint Base Andrews

    Ester Blake – 1948

    On July 8, 1948, Ester Blake became the first woman to join the United States Air Force. The widowed mother of two sons (both serving), enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 to help end the war after her oldest son was shot down in service while flying a B-17 and reported missing. Her efforts only increased after that. Although women weren't allowed to fight, Blake enthusiastically took on office jobs in order to relieve men so they could enter combat positions. Both of her sons were eventually found and returned home safely—meanwhile, Blake continued to serve in the Air Force until 1954.

  • Col. Ruby Bradley – 1958
    12/ U.S.Army // Wikipedia Commons

    Col. Ruby Bradley – 1958

    Col. Ruby Bradley is one of the most decorated nurses in U.S. military history. Bradley was known as the "Angel in Fatigues,” a nickname she earned while caring for prisoners of war in the Philippines. She survived World War II and the Korean War, and in 1958 became the third woman in the U.S. to be promoted to the rank of colonel.

  • Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett – 1972
    13/ National Archives & Records Administration

    Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett – 1972

    Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett was the highest-ranking female naval line officer in Vietnam, overseeing hundreds of people during the time she served as the Commanding Officer of the Naval Advisory Group. Barrett's tenure marks the first time in U.S. history a woman held command in a combat zone.

  • Cmdr. Darlene Iskra – 1990
    14/ Nat'l Museum of the U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

    Cmdr. Darlene Iskra – 1990

    Cmdr. Darlene Iskra paved the way for women from the beginning of her career with the Navy. She was one of the first woman to graduate from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage as a diving officer, and later became the first woman to command a U.S. Naval ship—the USS Opportune—in 1990.

  • Lt. Col. Martha McSally – 1991
    15/ Getty Images

    Lt. Col. Martha McSally – 1991

    Lt. Col. Martha McSally is the first female fighter pilot in combat in the U.S. Air Force. She achieved this "first” in 1991 after Congress had struck down a law barring women from flying warplanes in combat. McSally has since moved into politics: She ran for an Arizona Senate seat in 2018.

  • Jeannie Marie Leavitt – 1993
    16/ Getty Images

    Jeannie Marie Leavitt – 1993

    Jeannie Marie Leavitt achieved many "firsts” in the United States Air Force. Throughout her career, she became the first female fighter pilot, the first woman to graduate from the elite Air Force Weapons School, and the first woman to command an Air Force combat fighter wing.

  • Col. Eileen Collins – 1999
    17/ Getty Images

    Col. Eileen Collins – 1999

    Col. Eileen Collins became the first and only female space shuttle commander in 1999. Collins originally joined the U.S. Air Force as a flight instructor before getting selected for the astronaut program.

  • Capt. Kathleen McGrath – 2000
    18/ U.S. Navy Photo // Wikimedia Commons

    Capt. Kathleen McGrath – 2000

    No woman had ever commanded a U.S. Navy warship until Capt. Kathleen McGrath took command of a 453-foot ship called Jarrett. Beginning in 2000, McGrath led her ship into the Persian Gulf to stop oil smugglers.

  • Col. Linda McTague – 2004
    19/ U.S. Air Force Photos

    Col. Linda McTague – 2004

    Col. Linda McTague does not see herself as a pioneer, but many view her as one. McTague is the first woman to command an Air National Guard wing, and is believed to be the first woman in U.S. history to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

  • Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester – 2005
    20/ Getty Images

    Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester – 2005

    Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester in 2005 became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star. The Silver Star medal is one of the most coveted awards given to members of the U.S. armed forces for bravery and valor in combat. Hester was awarded the medal after fighting off insurgents in Iraq during the War on Terror.

  • Gen. Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody – 2008
    21/ The U.S. Army // Flickr

    Gen. Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody – 2008

    Gen. Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody is the first woman in U.S. military history to be promoted to four-star general. Gen. Dunwoody is known for her leadership skills and for her work preventing sexual assault in the U.S. Army.

  • Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz – 2011
    22/ Getty Images

    Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz – 2011

    In 2011, Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz became the first woman to lead a U.S. military service academy when she was selected to be the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. A graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy herself, Stosz later went on to serve as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support.


  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth – 2012
    23/ Getty Images

    Sen. Tammy Duckworth – 2012

    Before she was elected to the U.S. Senate, Tammy Duckworth was an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient. During her time in Iraq, Duckworth’s helicopter was hit by an RPG, resulting in her losing both her legs and part of her arm. Upon her election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, Duckworth became the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress.

  • Adm. Michelle Howard – 2014
    24/ Official U.S. Navy Page // Flickr

    Adm. Michelle Howard – 2014

    Naval Adm. Michelle Howard solidified her spot in the U.S. military record books for breaking barriers in many aspects of her career. A few of her accomplishments include becoming the first female four-star admiral, the first female four-star admiral to command operational forces, and the first female graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy to be promoted to flag officer.

  • Capt. Kristen Griest – 2015
    25/ Getty Images

    Capt. Kristen Griest – 2015

    Capt. Kristen Griest was one of the first women to graduate from the Army Ranger School and has since become the first woman infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Women were barred from becoming infantry officers until 2015 when the defense secretary declared all combat roles were opened to women.

  • First Lt. Shaye Haver – 2015
    26/ U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ron Burgundy

    First Lt. Shaye Haver – 2015

    First Lt. Shaye Haver graduated the Army Ranger School alongside Capt. Kristen Griest in 2015. After this feat, Haver joined infantry and the 82nd Airborne Division.


  • Capt. Kate Alfin – 2016
    27/ Getty Images

    Capt. Kate Alfin – 2016

    Army Capt. Kate Alfin completed the Allied Winter Course at the Norwegian School of Winter Warfare in 2016, becoming the first woman soldier of any allied NATO military to do so. During the 26-day course, Alfin not only learned how to survive in cold environments, but also learned mobility and leadership skills.

  • Gen. Lori Robinson – 2016
    28/ U.S. Dept.of Defense

    Gen. Lori Robinson – 2016

    Gen. Lori Robinson became the highest-ranking female in United States military history in 2016 when she assumed command of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command. In an interview with TIME in 2017, Robinson reported that her two bosses were the President of the United States and the Canadian Prime Minister.

  • Capt. Christy Wise – 2016
    29/ CJCS // Wikimedia Commons

    Capt. Christy Wise – 2016

    After losing her leg in 2015, Capt. Christy Wise did not lose her will to fight. Only a year after the injury and many hours of rehab later, Wise became the first woman amputee in U.S. Air Force history to regain her wings.

  • Chief Petty Officer Dominique Saavedra – 2016
    30/ Department of the Navy

    Chief Petty Officer Dominique Saavedra – 2016

    Chief Petty Officer Dominique Saavedra became the first woman in the Navy to qualify to serve on a submarine. In 2016 she received the prestigious silver dolphin pin and later served on a guided-missile submarine.

  • Simone Askew – 2017
    31/ CJCS // Flickr

    Simone Askew – 2017

    At only 20 years old, Simone Askew became the first black woman to become West Point’s top cadet. As first captain of the school's 4,400-member Corps of Cadets, Askew is tasked with planning class schedules and acting as the point of contact between cadets and school officials.

2018 All rights reserved.