Diana Holland – First Commandant of Cadets at West Point

WEST POINT INSIGNIAThe Superintendent of West Point just swore in the First Woman Commandant of Cadets. Brigadier General Diana Holland will be responsible for training the elite cadets who are usually first in line for promotions into the higher ranks of the Army. A graduate of West Point (and Holland is one) usually holds this position, but Holland’s path there might have been a bit unique. When Holland was eight years old when she told her father she wanted to go into the military. The academies were only beginning to admit women, but her father told her to set her sites on West Point so she would have a leg up on her career. Holland, who has served in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan, previously returned to West Point as an instructor in history.

Her appointment follows on the heels of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter‘s announcement that in the future women are entitled to fill any role in the military for which they qualify. Holland’s appointment was underway when this occurs so the juxtaposition may be accidental, but its significance is reinforced by the timing of the two events.

The Superintendent of the Academy recognized other women in the audience, in particular two other First Women. Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, who completed the Army’s strenuous Ranger training last year, are also graduates of West Point.

Future First Women in the Military

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.34.57 AMDefense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has announced that all combat roles in our military will be open to women. This is a critical move for women as the progression up the line of command to the higher ranks often goes through the assignments that are currently denied to women. It also means there will be many First Women earning positions in the military over the next few years.

It strikes me that this situation is emblematic of many situations involving First Women. It takes a woman of grit to move into male territory, and sometimes it also takes a man. Men, after all, were, and to some extent still are, in power and it is sometimes their decisions that make firsts possible.

This action by Carter took some courage on his part. He had the support of the Army, Navy, and Air Force but not the Marines. This might not have mattered but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph E. Dunford, Jr., was former commandant of the Marine Corps, opposed to this decision, and did not stand beside Carter when it was announced.

In spite of that, Carter emphasized. “There will be no exceptions.”

His guts are matched with the achievements of United States Army’s First Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest, who completed Ranger School and proved women were capable, in spite of not knowing at the time whether they would be allowed to join a Ranger unit. Since their achievement, Maj. Lisa Jaster has also completed Ranger training. Carter said their success was part of the research that led to his decision. A confluence of women’s fortitude and a man’s daring made this possible.

I would not want my daughter to be in the military, in spite of the fact that I come from a military family. My mother, father, brother, sister, and first husband all served. Consequently, I have great respect for those who serve, but also have strong feelings about war as the solution to our problems and would prefer not to have a daughter of mine involved. However, if I had a daughter, and she was so inclined, I would not want her denied any position she is capable of earning. Secretary Carter, Lt. Haver, Capt. Griest, and Maj. Jaster led the way, and made that possible.

Martha McSally – First in Combat

AP Photo

AP Photo

After the election earlier this fall, Republican Martha McSally was ahead of her competitor Democrat Ron Barber, the current representative, by less than 200 votes. A recount was conducted and, six weeks later, McSally was still ahead—by 167 votes. Her opponent conceded, and she will represent Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District in the next Congress.

McSally is a retired Air Force with two impressive military firsts:

–the first woman to fly in combat

–the first woman to command a fighter squadron

Although these are impressive, even more impressive is her battle against the military hierarchy. She filed a lawsuit that forced the Pentagon to end the requirement that U.S. servicewomen cover themselves in traditional Islamic clothing while off-base in Saudi Arabia.

First Women in the CIVIL WAR

Continuing in the celebration of National Women’s History Month, here is a trio of women’s firsts from the Civil War era.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.36.30 AMAmong the First Women To. . .in the Civil War are a combatant, a doctor, and an orator. All three defied the gender designations of their time and one exceeded expectations for her race we well.

The orator was Ana Elizabeth Dickinson. Renowned for her abolitionist speeches, she was the first woman to speak before Congress. Her activism began at age thirteen when she wrote an essay for The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper in Boston. Because the Quakers did not dissuade women from speaking in public, she used their platform for her speeches. In 1861, eight hundred Philadelphians paid to hear her speak on the topic of “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.” By the time she spoke in New York, five thousand attended her speech.

She could “hold her audience spellbound for as much as two hours.” Eventually she averaged a speech every other day and earned $20,000 annually, a magnificent sum in that day. When the Republic leadership in Congress invited her to speak in 1864, the president joined military and civilian leaders in the congressional gallery to hear her speak.

The most famous of this trio is Harriet Tubman, the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman, originally Araminta Harriet Ross, escaped into Pennsylvania. “When I found I had crossed that line,” she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

The experience was so transforming that she resolved to free other slaves and led hundreds north as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. During the war she served as a cook and nurse, then as a scout and spy for the Union Army. The Combahee River Raid, which she led, liberated more than 700 slaves. When she died she was buried with military honors.

Because of her service in the Civil War, Mary Walker was the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. As a doctor, she served on the battlefield in tent hospitals and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. When she crossed enemy lines to treat soldiers on the other side, the South arrested her as a spy and made her a prisoner of war. Released after nine months, she returned to the battlefield and served in the Ohio 52nd Infantry, where she provided care for women prisoners.

In 1917 Congress changed the rules for awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor and rescinded Mary Walkers’ medal. She continued to wear it for the remaining two years of her life and President Jimmy Carter restored the award posthumously in 1977. She is still the only woman to have received this award.

First Women in the Revolutionary War

        Instead of blogging about contemporary women this month, I want to celebrate National Women’s History Month and write about women in our past history. The theme for the National Women’s History Project’s theme for 2014 is: Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment. Taking that theme to heart, the Revolutionary War seemed a good place to start.

from The New Georgia Encyclopedia

from The New Georgia Encyclopedia

We all know that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag to spur on the Patriots and Abigail Adams asked her husband to “remember the ladies” when drafting the documents to form this country (see my blog on Abigail Adams). Most of us are hard-pressed to name any others, but many women supported the Revolutionary War against the British and a surprising number made it into the history books. Several of them were First Women To. . .

There were women of letters who aided the revolution through their writing:

Mercy Otis Warren wrote plays, such as The Blockheads, that lampooned the British. The plays were written anonymously to preserve her head. Later she was the first woman to write a history of the American Revolution.

Phillis Wheatley was the first published black author in America. She wrote poems about patriotism and one about George Washington, to whom she read the poem in person.

There were also women who enlisted as soldiers:

Margaret Corbin was the first woman in U.S. history to receive a pension for her military service. She was originally a camp follower who helped her husband in his cannon-loading responsibilities. When he was mortally wounded, she took his place and was herself wounded. She is buried at the United States Military Academy.

Modern authors Lucy Freeman and Alma Pond called Deborah Sample America’s First Woman Warrior. This is arguable as other women are known to have fought in the American Revolution, but there is no doubt that Deborah Sample was the first—and only—woman to provide her widower with a pension for her services in the Revolutionary War. Deborah Sample enlisted while disguised as a man and when discovered, simply re-enlisted in another unit under another man’s name.

There were many more women, not necessarily firsts, who served the cause. Here is a brief list of a few:

Molly Pitcher

Molly Pitcher

Mary Ludwig Hays – She was also known as “Molly Pitcher,” because she provided water to the soldiers in her husband’s unit. Like Deborah Sample, she took over her husband’s duties when he was wounded.

Catherine Moore Barry – When it seemed General Cornwallis would overrun General Morgan’s troops, Catherine Moore Barry, who knew well the countryside around Cowpens, South Carolina, slipped down short cuts and trails rounding up more Patriots to join—and win—the battle.

Nancy Hart – When forced to cook a meal for British soldiers, Nancy Hart killed two of them with their own muskets. On another occasion she disguised herself as a crazy man and went through the British camp gathering intelligence. A county in Georgia is named for her, as is War Woman Creek.

Hannah Arnett – When some of the Patriots were dispirited with the war’s progress and considered joining the British, Hannah Arnett burst uninvited into their meeting and proclaimed them cowards. She announced that she would abandon her marriage if her husband left the cause. He supported her position, and they prevailed.

Martha Bratton – Her husband provided gunpowder to the Patriots. When he was away and she learned the British were approaching to steal the gunpowder, she rigged the building where it was housed so that it exploded when the British entered. She later set up a hospital and nursed soldiers from both sides.

Lydia Darragh – Because she was a Quaker, the British used her home for a strategic meeting, setting out a plan for a surprise attack on George Washington. Rationalizing that too many would be hurt if she did nothing, she went against her upbringing, and slipped into Washington’s camp to warn him.

Riding like Paul Revere

Riding like Paul Revere

Sybil Luddington – When Sybil’s father needed someone to round up the troops as the British headed toward them, Sybil Luddington, like Paul Revere, rode through the neighboring towns sounding the alarm.

Prudence Wright – With several women of Groton, Massachusetts, Prudence Wright, dressed in her husband’s clothes, waylaid a British soldier on a bridge and removed secret messages from his pocket for the local Patriots.

Elizabeth Burgin – While bringing food to soldiers held in prison aboard British ships, Elizabeth Burgin helped plan the escape of 200 prisoners. She was awarded a pension for her service.

Elizabeth Geiger – Carrying a message for the Patriots, Elizabeth Geiger was stopped by British soldiers. Timid about searching her, the soldiers sent for women to do the task. Before the women arrived, she memorized the message, ate it and then delivered its content successfully.

Mary Murray – Although her husband supported the British, Mary Murray sided with the Patriots. When she heard the British would entrap retreating Americans, she invited the British officers to tea and delayed them long enough for American troops to escape.

        If you know of other first women during this period, CLICK “Leave a Comment” below and add that information. Thanks!