It's not often you hear tales of female war heroes. And why? Because women were only allowed into combat in very recent history. The first female U.S participants in war (officially) was in the last years of World War I when 33,000 women were commissioned as nurses and support staff for the male soldiers. In 1948 there came into effect the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, that excluded women from any and all combat positions in wars henceforth. The act has been lifted to varying degrees in 1993 and 2001, to let women engage in combat through some areas of the military. In 2013 it was completely lifted to allow female participation in all aspects of the U.S military including the Navy and the Marines.
Below are five women who defied the stigmas attached to women in warzones and pursued their military careers nonetheless, ranging across the world from Italy in World War II, to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and all the way back to the American Civil War. We salute you, ladies.
Sarah Edmonds Courtesy of National Archives
Sarah Emma Edmonds
A master of disguise, Sarah Emma Edmonds was best known for serving as a man – Franklin Flint Thompson – in the Union Army during the American Civil War. She was one of the few females to have served in the Civil War, where she discovered that life was easier when dressed as a man. She participated in several battles, including the Second Battles of Manassas and Antietam.
She also allegedly served as a Union spy in the Confederate army; one of her purported aliases was a black man named Cuff, for which she disguised herself using wigs and silver nitrate to dye her skin. Despite her guises, she was still recognized for her contributions – she was awarded an honorable discharge from the military and admittance to the Grand Army of the Republic as its only female member.
Lt. Mary Roberts Wilson
Mary Roberts Wilson. Courtesy of Flashback Dallas
A war nurse at Anzio in Italy during the allied invasion of Germany in 1944, Wilson was named "The Angel of Anzio" during one of the most difficult sieges of the second World War in Italy. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Silver Star for courage under fire during World War II. During one particularly bad raid, she was asked should she and 50 other of her nurses evacuate, to which she responded no, and continued to work amidst the chaos of flying shrapnel from long-range artillery shells aimed right at her tent. Wilson passed away in 2001.
Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Hopper Courtesy of Obama White House
Also known as “Amazing Grace,” Grace Murray Hopper left an indelible legacy in the U.S. naval history. She was the third programmer of Mark I, the world’s first large-scale computer, and founded the COBOL programming language, which set the foundation for many of the software code approaches of today. Hopper joined the Naval Reserves in 1943 during World War II, where she tackled the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project, where she made great strides and contributions for the Navy and computer scientists alike. As a tribute, a destroyer was named after her, as well as the supercomputer Cray XE6 “Hopper.” Distinguished and inspirational, Hopper will not soon be forgotten.
Capt. Jennifer M. Moreno
Having arrived in Afghanistan to nurse, she volunteered to serve in a cultural support unit, which typically had one woman in order for them to communicate with Afghan women. In October of 2015, Moreno was on patrol at a raid on a Taliban bomb-making compound. After a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest, Moreno ran to the aid of one of her fellow soldiers. In the process, she stepped on a land mine. Moreno was on her first deployment to Iraq when she was killed in combat. She was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain and awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Heart, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and NATO Medal and Combat Action Badge.
Capt. Jennifer Moreno. Courtesy of U.S Special Operations Command
Army Specialist Five Karen Irene Offutt
Offutt was serving in Vietnam when a shanti caught fire across the street from her. Barefoot and without regard for her own life, she ran into the burning entrapment to save the Vietnamese people, both young and old, caught inside. Having rescued both adults and children, she was to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for her brave efforts, only to be told women could not receive such an accolade. She was instead awarded a certificate. It's said that she wasn't phased by the blatant disregard for her gender, and in 2001 - over 30 years after the incident, she was finally awarded the Soldiers Medal by a representative of Congressman Mike Bilirakis. Offutt is still alive today, but we felt she deserved a mention amongst these incredible women who've since passed away.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.