One hundred five years ago today, Loretta Perfectus Walsh, a 20-year-old Philadelphia woman, was sworn in as Chief Yeoman, becoming the first woman petty officer in the United States Navy. Walsh enlisted four days earlier under the US Naval Reserve Act of 1916, permitting the enlistment of qualified persons for service in the Navy.
Two short years after Walsh’s swearing in as a military officer, women were granted suffrage by the 19th Amendment, on June 4, 1919, and ratified one year later.
Prior to World War II, thousands upon thousands of women served as noncombat nurses, from the Civil War to the 1940s. War, as it happens, yields to necessity. In 1942, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was created, attached to the Army but not integrated into it. Under the direction of a Texan, Oveta Culp Hobby, the corps was renamed the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and enlistees in all branches were given full military status. Hobby later was named the first secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Eisenhower administration, where she oversaw the national plan for polio vaccinations.
The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (1948), following two years of debate, granted women full membership and benefits for military service. The progress of women in the military has been subjected to an endemic cultural bias as well as scandals involving sexual abuse. US Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) represents a stark repudiation of that bias for her service career.
However, the deeply ingrained cultural resistance against women’s equality in the armed services continues to be cited, currently to oppose adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. There is no dearth of the historical record requiring a critical gender theory to analyze and evaluate the ambiguity by which women are regarded.
The careers and contributions of Walsh, Hobby, and Duckworth are but tiny examples of the testimony to a general disability in our national vision.