Military Women "Firsts"

Women in the U.S. military have always had a "tough row to hoe" and we owe a lot to those women who literally broke ground, opened doors, and made the choice of a military career easier for those who followed. Beginning with the early pioneers, who were almost never recognized, here are some of the military women of achievement and their accomplishments. Please bear in mind that the terms WAC - Women's Army Corps - WAVE - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service - WAF - Women in the Air Force - and so on, are used in the context of the times. We were called by those acronyms from the 1940s until the separate women's branches were eliminated in the mid 1970s.

The First to Receive Pensions for Military Service

Contrary to slanted opinions about women there is a long historical precedent for women in some form of warfare - though not always in a uniform. For the early pioneer women "home defense" was as routine as drawing well water. And in the Revolutionary decade the first known woman to serve was awarded the first pension for her service.
Margaret Corbin fought with her husband at Fort Washington and in 1779 Congress voted her a disability pension of one half a soldiers pay and one suit of clothes or the equivalent in cash.

Years later, another Revolutionary heroine, Deborah Samson, was granted a pension by the Massachussettes legislature in 1804 and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley a pension in 1822 of forty dollars a year "for services rendered" during the war.

During the Mexican War, Elizabeth C. Newcume, in male attire, was mustered into military service at Fort Leavenworth in September 1847. She served ten months and spent time fighting indians at Dodge City until her sex was discovered and she was discharged. It took a private act of congress to pay Elizabeth Newcume who received a bounty land warrant for 160 acres and full payment for ten months service, plus three months extra pay, as provided in the 5th section of the act of 19 July 1848.

The First to Receive Medals

The first, and only, woman to receive The Medal of Honor was Dr. Mary E. Walker, a contract surgeon during the Civil War.

The first woman to receive The Purple Heart was Annie G. Fox while serving at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec 7 1941.

The first woman to receive The Bronze Star was 1Lt Cordelia E. Cook, Army Nurse Corps, during WWII in Italy. Lt Cook was also awarded The Purple Heart, becoming the first woman to receive two awards.

Lt Edith Greenwood was awarded The Soldiers Medal in 1943 for heroism during a fire at a military hospital in Yuma Arizona - the first woman to receive this award.

The first woman to receive The Air Medal was Lt Elsie S. Ott awarded for her actions in 1943 as an air evac nurse.

Barbara Olive Barnwell was the first woman awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Medal for heroism in 1953. Barbara Barnwell , a SSGT from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and a member of the Marine Reserve, saved a soldier from drowning in 1952.

Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, the first Director of the WAC, was the first woman to receive The U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.

For more on women who have received military medals see: Medals Awarded

The First to Enlist

Philadelphian Loretta Walsh enlisted in March of 1917 and became the first Yeoman (F) in the Navy.

twins Twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker joined the Coast Guard.

In August of 1918 Opha M. Johnson enlisted as the first woman in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

Sgt Esther M. Blake is considered the "first woman in the Air Force" having enlisted in the first minute of the first hour of the first day the regular Air Force was authorized. This took place on the 8th of July 1948 at Ft McPhearson, Georgia, where Sgt Blake was stationed as a member of the WAC. By enlisting in the Air Force she became the first WAF - which by the way stood for Women in the Air Force.blake

The First Military Woman Physician
Military commissions for women doctors were nonexistent prior to WWII. In 1940, American Medical Women's Association petitioned the AMA for support in changing the law excluding women from the military reserves. Previously the AMA supported the military rank of women nurses but declined to lend support for women physicians. It wasn't until 1943, when the physician supply could not keep up with the demand as the Army increased by thirtyfold, that the AMA and the Army and Navy Surgeon General withdrew their objections. The law was signed on April 16, 1943, and the first woman to be commissioned into the Army Medical Corps, Dr. Margaret D. Craighill, was given the rank of major.

The First Directors - WWII
WAVES - Captain Mildred H. McAfee - Navy
WAAC/WAC - Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby - Army
SPARS - Lt Commander Dorothy C. Stratton - Coast Guard
MCWR - Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter - Marines
WAF - 1948 - Colonel Geraldine Pratt May - Women in the Air Force

The First on a U.S. Postage Stamp
Spanish American War Nurse Clara Maass,
who died as a result of yellow fever. Army Contract Nurse Maass volunteered to participate
in an experimental treatment program,
after having survived the war.
The First to Have a Building Named for Her
The First Sergeant Major of the WAC Training Battalion (1959-64) Sgt. Maj.Florence G. Munson was honored by having the headquarters and classroom building for the WAC Training Battalion dedicated in her honor in October 1965. She was the only WAC to have a building named for her at the Ft McClellan WAC Center.

Pfc. Maureen Daugherty, the first U.S. military woman to make a parachute jump in Bolivia,
straps on her gear during Fuerzas Unidas Bolivia, a joint U.S. and Bolivian training exercise.
April 1986 Photo-Defense Visual Information Center

Firsts in a variety of areas:

Olive Hoskins was the very first woman promoted to Warrant Officer in the Army in 1926.

The first WAAC Training Center was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa in 1942. The first WAAC OCS class was at Ft Des Moines from 20 July to 29 August 1942.

One of the first WAAC/WAC First Sergeants at Des Moines in '42 was MSgt Margaret A. Hardy of South Amboy, New Jersey.

The first military all women band was the Women's Army Band organized at Fort Des Moines in 1942. It was led by then sergeant - MaryBelle Nissly - the job called for a warrant officer but there was no legal precedent to appoint her to that rank. As a result of special legislation, early in 1944 WAC Sergeant Nissly became the first woman in military history to win a warrant officer band leader appointment.
WO Nissly left the Army in 1946 but returned to the service as a Captain in the Air Force in 1951 to organize the USAF WAF Band.
The 50 member concert unit performed all over the world playing everything from classics to rock and roll. Unique to the WAF band was the only woman coach horn soloist in the USA - Tech Sgt Marty Awkerman, a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory. For more on military women musicians see: Musicians

In 1967 Master Sergeant Barbara J. Dulinsky, who had volunteered for duty in Vietnam, reported to the Military Assistance Command in Saigon--the first woman Marine ordered to a combat zone.

hultgreen Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the Navy's first fully qualified female fleet fighter pilot, was only 29 when her Tomcat slammed into the Pacific Ocean in 1994 - sadly making her the first woman combat pilot to die in service. Although 31 male pilots have died in Tomcat accidents much ado was made over Lt Hultgreen's accident. See also Recommended Reading and They Gave Their Lives for more on Lt Hultgreen.

In July 1993 2nd Lieutenant Sarah Deal became the first woman Marine selected for Naval aviation training. She received her wings on 21 Apr 1995 and served as a CH-53E pilot.


In 1995 Air Force Academy graduate Lt Kelly Flinn became the first woman B-52 Bomber Pilot. She was the Distinguished Graduate in her B-52 Formal Training Unit. Lt Flinn resigned in 1997, the first woman, in my opinion, to be vilified by the miltary's double standards - in a case that should have never gone beyond simple administrative handling at squadron level.

The First Women to attain E-9 - the highest enlisted rank:
WAVES - YNCM (Yeoman) Anne Dervartanian 1959
WAC - Sgt Major Carolyn H. James - 1960
USMC - Master Gunnery Sgt. Geraldine M. Moran - 1960
WAF - SMsgt Grace A. Peterson - 1960
SPARS - Master Chief Yeoman Pearl E. Faurie - 1964

In 1990 Cmdr. Darlene Iskra became the first woman
to command a U.S. Navy ship - the U.S.S. Opportune.

The First Women to attain Star Rank:
Army - Brig. General Elizabeth P.Hoisington - 1970
Navy - Rear Admiral Fran McKee - 1976
Marines - Brig. General Margaret A. Brewer - 1978
Air Force - Brig. General Jeanne M. Holm - 1971
The First Women in Nursing to attain Star Rank:
Army Nurse Corps - Brig. General Anna May Hays - 1970
Navy Nurse Corps - Rear Admiral Alene B. Duerk - 1972
Air Force Nurse Corps - Brig. General E. Ann Hoefly - 1972

COL Florence Blanchfield, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps was given the U.S. Army serial number N-1 and commissioned in the permanent grade of LTC in the Regular Army. She thus became the first woman to hold a permanent commission in the U.S. Army. As Chief of the ANC, she continued to serve in the temporary grade of Colonel.
Col Blanchfield COL Blanchfield served as Chief of the Corps from 1943-1947 and was responsible for the largest group of nurses to ever be on active duty. In September of 47, she retired after more than 29 years of active service. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in June 1945 for her leadership of the Corps during WWII. She also received many other awards and honors- The Florence Nightingale Medal was awarded by the International Red Cross in 51, and the Distinguished Service Medal from her native state of West Virginia in 63. In 1982, the new hospital at FT Campbell, Ky. was dedicated and named after COL Florence Blanchfield.

navy Airplane Traffic Cops:
Airman Kelli Cunningham (left), from Tempe, Ariz., and Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Cook, from Schenectady, N.Y., direct planes aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during Exercise RIMPAC '98. Cunningham is the first woman to handle flight deck aircraft aboard Vinson. RIMPAC '98 is the largest multi-national maritime exercise in the Pacific. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Spike Call.

Several "firsts" for women in the U.S. Coast Guard can be found here: Coast Guard History

Firsts contributed by site visitors has become so popular that it now has its own page. Thank you for contributing these wonderful anecdotes about our military women and the women who served along with them in other organizations.

Firsts contributed by site visitors

Firsts continued...Do you know what ships were named for women? More Unique Firsts

If you know of a military woman's first please send it for inclusion here. My apologies to those who have sent items recently - am really waaaay behind on making additions.

Post Script to Firsts:
Captain Barbara Wilson was the first WAF (Women in the Air Force) to complete college and obtain B.A degree under "Operation Bootstrap" through Long Island University and the first enlisted WAF NCO - (TSgt.) to obtain a commission by completing OTS.

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Unless otherwise noted contents © 1996 to date by Captain Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret).
That means don't use it without my permission!