Women in the Military: Pre-1920

Military Monday is a series of posts I’ve wanted to make for a while, and I plan on doing it during November, which contains my second-favorite holiday of all time, The Marine Corps Birthday (no you ghouls, it’s not Veteran’s Day—that’s horrific) (my first favorite is Halloween).

And since I’m exhausted by the never-ending amount of books about men in the military, and also tired of my library (which is home to a Marine Corps base) ordering Marine Corps children’s books published in 2011 that feature no women, I’m dedicating all of my posts to books featuring women service members.

Since America’s founding, roughly two million women have served in the military. Yet our stories rarely get told—and if they do, they lose publicity towards stories focused on military men.

These posts are for us.

Our stories, and our history, matters too.

This list is going to be United States of America specific, although when we get to World War II a couple other countries might squeak in. These are not all-encompassing lists, but what I could find and what seemed relevant, well researched and well-written. Some of the titles are out of print. If you know of more, please let me know and I’m happy to update these posts!

The majority of titles are adult nonfiction, but there are a couple of middle grade and young adult nonfiction titles, along with some adult and young adult fiction titles, that I’ll mention as well.

November 4: WWI and Before

November 11: WWII

November 18: Vietnam and After

November 25: Post 9/11

December 2: General History


Surprise! Women have served in and alongside the military since (and before) America’s founding. There’s always a need for nurses, and often women served alongside their husbands (sometimes right alongside them in battle), and quite a few dressed as men (or were trans men) and served in the military directly. Additionally, many women followed in the supply train—from cooks to laundresses to wives to prostitutes to nurses to seamstresses to any combination of these.

Women fought in the Revolutionary War (in disguise like Deborah Sampson or alongside their husbands like Molly Pitcher), and also were employed as military nurses for the Army and the Navy in the War of 1812. Additionally, many more served outside the military, particularly as nurses—and the need for nurses skyrocketed during the Civil War. And of course, an unknown number of women served in disguise during the Civil War (and before).

Of course, there is the possibility that many of these “women in disguise” were actually trans men, who escaped to the military to free themselves from the expectations and social norms of the sex they were assigned at birth, and be themselves. So the women in disguise narrative can and does erase the very real trans men who served and fought and died. My general way-forward is that if the servicemember continued as a man after military service, he was a man, and if she went back to dressing as a woman, she was a woman—although it’s never that simple and that also erases a lot of nuance to a person’s history (and also if contemporary historians lean one way or another as they are the experts not me). So with that, proceed with caution.

Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, by Alfred Young

A biography of Deborah Sampson, the first (well, ~officially~ because who really knows) woman to serve in the US Army. Sampson disguised herself as a man and became and outstanding soldier, distinguishing herself in combat time and time again.

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by Deanne Blanton

Okay, this one might be a little problematic. I haven’t read this one, so tread with caution as it might be transphobic, however I included it as it also contains the stories of multiple women who also served in the Civil War. The potential issue is with the depiction of Albert Cashier. Cashier was most likely a trans man (as we understand the term now) and not a woman in disguise, as even though he dressed in men’s clothing and kept fighting after his husband was gunned down in front of him, he continued life as a man until his death. The book appears to treat Cashier as a woman in disguise and erase any possibility that he was trans.

America’s Female Buffalo Soldier by Phillip Thomas Tucker

Cathay Williams was the first female Buffalo Soldier—the Black cavalry troops who transitioned from despised Civil War soldiers to despised soldiers during Reconstruction. Because the United States Government was 1) extremely racist and 2) extremely racist, they didn’t know what to do with the Black soldiers who had served (and wanted to continue serving because it was better than life back home) and/or were looking to join up. So they sent them to the West and forced them to murder American Indians. Cathay Williams was one of them.

Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman

A YA novel about a newly freed woman whose only means of survival is to disguise herself as a man and join the African American cavalry troops—aka the Buffalo Soldiers—to fight the American Indians. Strong themes of disenfranchisement and survival by endurance. Another book I haven’t read but would like to.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird

A fictionalized retelling of the life of Cathay Williams, and a recent publication. I haven’t read it, but I did receive an ARC of the book (I know, I know, much shame) and it has good ratings, although apparently there is a romance in there that takes up a good chunk of the story.


World War I was a host of firsts for women in the military—with a host of “first” official women in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard (apparently light house keepers don’t count). While military women were regulated to administrative positions, some were sent overseas—and some did fight! DUe to improved health screenings, many women were unable to disguise themselves and serve in the United States military, but other women did see combat. Mostly notably, there was an all-women infantry battalion in Russia. Granted, it was formed mainly to “shame” the men into continued service, but they fought and saw combat.

There are a lot of books about nurses in World War I, so I looked for other women in the military. Loretta Walsh was the first woman to officially enlist in the armed forces when she joined the Navy in 1917 (because the US Army doesn’t state an official first woman). Opha Mae Johnson was the famous first woman to join the Marines (officially) in August 1918 (the Marine Corps—always the last to have anything to do with women), and either Genevieve and Lucille Baker or Myrtle Hazard were the first women to join the Coast Guard in January 1918. Note, all of these firsts occurred before (white) women even had the right to vote!

I’ll be honest, I haven’t read any of these, but they all look really, really fascinating!

The Hello Girls: America’s First Wartime Soldiers by Elizabeth Cobbs

A history of the 223 American servicewomen sent to France as switchboard operators. While most were stationed in a war zone—often near the front lines where they continued operating through shelling and bombardment—all endured some level of mocking, harassment and physical assault from their male counterparts. After their discharge in 1920, they received no military benefits (surprise, surprise), and fought for over 60 years to receive validation for their service.

American Women in World War I: They Also Served by Lettie Gavin

A brief overview of the history of American women servicemembers in Word War I, drawing heavily from diaries, memoirs, interviews and memoirs. It focuses on the women who served in the Navy, Marine Corps, Signal Corps, Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA and the Nurse Corps. It has some decent reviews, and since it’s an overview I hope it crams a lot of information in—and has a fantastic bibliography for future reading!

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War by Elizabeth Shipton

The title says “Tommies,” which makes me think of British women, but the book also features Canadians (okay the ~Commonwealth~ but whatever), Americans, French and Russians, and focuses on women who fought or served on or near the front lines of the war. One of the things that most intrigues me about this book is the focus on the Serbian military, which is something that I have hardly learned anything about.

Two Colored Women With the American Expeditionary Forces by Addie W Hunton & Kathryn M Johnson

This is Hunton’s memoir (co-written with coworker Johnson) of her service overseas in France during World War I. A buried piece of history is the 150,000 Black soldiers sent overseas (in segregated units, #becauseracistAmerica), “fighting for democracy” with the country that barely deemed them as human. Alongside these men were thousands of volunteers from various organizations, including the YMCA.

Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I by Dorothy & Carl Schneider

An overview of the women who went overseas during World War I—focusing on the various jobs and services these women performed either in service to the military or in quasi-military duties, often without receiving benefits or pensions, although they did get loads of harassment and discrimination. There were a number of women physicians who served as well, who often failed to receive the same opportunities or accolades as their male peers. The Schneiders do mention the service of Black women, and the abysmal ways they were treated by the Americans, a stark contrast to the solace and acceptance they often found with the French.


After the war, the woman who served in the military during WWI were disbanded and told to go home, often without receiving military benefits or recognition of any kind (unless they were “firsts,” in which case I’m assuming their reward was recognition years after the fact?).

I’d love to know of stories (preferably books) of trans women and women of color who served in the United States’ armed services, particularly women of Asian or American Indian descent, during this time period. The focus of history has been on white people, and within women in the military, white cis women.

If you know of more books and resources, please let me know!





Of course there are more resources, but these are the ones I skimmed over while searching for books and information. There’s also a Goodreads list called Women in WWI which…tried.

3 thoughts on “Women in the Military: Pre-1920

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s