Women's combat contributions evident throughout nation's independence

  • Published
  • By Col. Robyn King
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

Editor's Note: The following commentary was taken in part from Colonel King's Oct. 31 remarks as co-chair at the Heritage to Horizon Women's Training Symposium in Springfield, Va.  Colonel King is Dean of Students at AFIT.

The 1970s were a time of great expansion for women -- not only in the military but in all realms of life. Glass ceilings everywhere were being shattered, and we weren't necessarily stopping to clean-up the glass behind us or below us.

In her book, "Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm refers to the 1970s as a decade of expansion while the 1980s were a new period of uncertainty. The 1970s brought about the end of the draft and an expansion of women's participation in the armed forces that was of unexpected and unprecedented proportions to include admittance to the nation's military service academies.

Author Peter Northouse acknowledges in his book, "Leadership: Theory and Practice," that until the 1970s, academic researchers largely ignored issues related to gender and leadership. He writes about how, along with the dramatic changes in American society during that timeframe, the rapidly increasing numbers of women in leadership positions and in academia sparked a new interest in the study of women leaders. Northouse concludes, "no longer were researchers asking 'Can women lead?' but rather 'What are the leadership style and effectiveness differences between women and men?'

I say "Who cares?" Let's not concentrate on gender but accomplish the mission using the strengths of every leader, male or female.

Today, more women in the military are making conscious choices to rise to leadership positions. Throughout history, women have been put in positions by necessity to lead and to perform in combat. There are two stories about how Molly Pitcher became a leader by necessity. 

General Holm writes about her:

"In June 1778, at Monmouth Courthouse, General George Washington and his revolutionary force found themselves in heated combat against British forces. To the weary, parched Soldiers on the battlefield, Molly Pitcher was an angel with a water pitcher and encouraging words. Many of the Soldiers recognized her as Mary, wife of John Hays, an artilleryman of the 7th Pennsylvania regiment.

"In the thick of battle, John Hays' gun position ceased firing. Mary found the crew lying mutilated and John seriously wounded. Although not trained in the arts of war, she had seen enough action to know what had to be done. She grabbed the ramming staff, swabbed out the hot gun barrel with water to extinguish sparks and remove unexploded powder, rammed home a charge and fired. Replacements soon arrived, but she stayed at her station as rammer until relieved by an artilleryman.

"Some historians claim the 'real' Molly Pitcher was Margaret Corbin, who in 1776, distinguished herself in the battle of Fort Washington by taking over the gun position of her husband John. Before the fort fell to the enemy, Margaret was wounded and disabled for life."

Regardless of which Molly Pitcher story is accurate, the central point is that women have been in combat for as long as this great nation has enjoyed its independence.

Perhaps more than any other event in history, Operation Desert Storm led to intensive review of our combat exclusion laws and policies. In the words of General Holm, "For the first time, the debate over women in combat was no longer hypothetical. It was for real."

The debate was settled in part for women in the Air Force when, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act. This act repealed the 43-year-old legal barriers on women flying combat missions in the Air Force. And things will never be the same.  

Thank goodness!