Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding (see timeline, below). They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and some women even disguised themselves as men to fight during the Civil War (1861-65). Their roles in the military have continued to evolve since then.
Today more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops.
Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Critics, including some top military officials, fought hard for years against allowing women in combat roles. They argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would distract male soldiers, which could be deadly in battle.
But keeping female troops out of the line of fire became more difficult as modern warfare evolved—especially during the war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which have lacked traditional front lines; firefights can happen anywhere.
As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed in combat. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for engaging with the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops’ heroics was a turning point.
Over time, “the issue of women in combat . . . was no longer a question,” Ash Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, said in 2016. “Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he added.