American women have been getting closer and closer to serving as official front-line combat troops since the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1941. In 2010, Army marksmanship coach Sgt. Sherri Gallagher defeated 11 other entrants to claim the Soldier of the Year award.Unofficially, the history of women in combat goes back thousands of years, or at least as far back as it became known that you didn’t have to be a dude to understand how a spear worked. In the 21st century, more people have carried both a rifle and two X chromosomes than any other time in history. Let’s take a look at some of the brave women who made this possible.
MARGARET CORBIN, CONTINENTAL ARMY, USA
The first woman in America to receive a military pension, Margaret Corbin (originally Cochran) grew up rough on the western fringes of Pennsylvania, losing her mother and father to a Native raid when she was only 5 years old. Margaret stayed with her uncle until she was 21, at which point she married a Virginian named John Corbin.
Just four years later, John enlisted in the Pennsylvania Artillery as part of a gun crew, and Margaret came with him (as did many wives, girlfriends other camp followers who accompanied troop movements). Margaret performed lots of ad-hoc duties in the camp, including nursing, cooking and laundry, but distinguished herself as a “Molly Pitcher,” rushing fresh pitchers of water to gun crews in order to cool down the overheated cannons.
At the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776, Margaret was running a fresh pitcher to her husband’s gun, only to find John dead and the cannon unmanned. She had watched the loading process enough times that she simply grabbed John’s swab and ramrod, and jumped right into his place, keeping the gun in action until she took hits in the arm, chest and jaw.
The British eventually conquered Fort Washington and captured Corbin, but after her release and the end of the war, she successfully demanded a military pension (including a rum ration) from the Continental Congress, as her wounds left her completely incapable of caring for herself. Corbin reportedly spent the rest of her life scandalizing her staid hometown by spending most of her time down at the barracks, drinking and trading war stories with her fellow soldiers. Today, she is one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers to be buried at West Point.
THE NIGHT WITCHES, SOVIET AIR FORCEFor all sorts of reasons (diplomatic intrigue, faulty intelligence, Stalin thinking he was way smarter than he actually was) the Soviet Union was caught completely off guard by the Nazi invasion, and fast-moving German mechanized and armor units were able to capture an astonishing amount of Russia’s most advanced aircraft and most important airbases by just driving up to them, shooting the commissars in the head, telling everybody they were now prisoners, and driving off to the next targets.
This enormous shortage of manpower and equipment lead to the official formation of a number of women’s military units, primarily in second-line areas and often with secondhand equipment. Most famous among these makeshift emergency units was the 588th Night Bombers Regiment (later given the honorary “Guards” designation as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment), one of the strangest but most effective air units of World War II.
The 588th exclusively flew Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik (literally “cropduster”) utility biplanes, originally designed in 1928 and absolutely the oldest and slowest combat aircraft of the war. The Po-2 cruised at 70 mph and could barely break 90 mph at full throttle, so daylight operations were restricted to areas where the Soviets could guarantee safety. But after sunset, the Night Witches earned their name and their paychecks. The flip side of the Kukuruznik's low speed was that it could soar on an idling engine for miles, allowing the women of the 588th to glide silently over German anti-aircraft and machine-gun positions to deliver two tiny but deadly bombs to the heart of enemy encampments.
Every German soldier fighting in the same theater as the 588th went to bed knowing that no matter how strong their fortifications seemed, there was still a chance that the Night Witches would sneak in and make sure they would never see another morning. After the bombing, the Witches faced the much more difficult problem of escaping enemy airspace, but again the glacial slowness of the Polikarpov came in handy. The Luftwaffe’s primary fighter planes were so much faster and more advanced than the 588th’s sputtery old cropdusters that they literally couldn’t fly slow enough to stay with the Po-2, and the clever women at the controls were masters of using landscape and shadow for concealment. The Night Witches finished the war after 23,000 sorties and featuring 23 recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
PVT. CATHAY WILLIAMS, U.S. ARMY
Born into slavery in September 1844, Cathay Williams worked as a maid on a Missouri plantation until being “liberated” by the troops of the 8th Indiana Regiment in 1861. While strictly speaking she was no longer a slave, she was officially drafted into the Union Army as part of their support troops. For the next few years, she served the 8th Indiana as they marched through Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia, and was believed to have encountered one of the handful of uniformed black regiments like the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry or the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a unit of escaped slaves.
At the end of the war, Williams found herself working at Jefferson Barracks just north of St. Louis. After a year as a civilian worker for the military, she decided she wanted to serve alongside other newly free African-American soldiers, and after a wardrobe change and an apparently very brief physical, “William Cathay” joined Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment stationed in St. Louis. No one in her unit (except a cousin and a close friend) ever suspected Williams, not even her doctors during a brief stay in a hospital due to a smallpox infection. After her unit moved to New Mexico, she served for two years before her worsening health finally lead to her being discovered as a woman.
Williams went back to being a civilian cook for the Army, and lived out the rest of her days in the West. She chose not to publicize her career, and her story became widely known only in 1876 after a St. Louis Daily Times investigator tracked her down. Close to the end of her life and crippled by neuralgia and diabetes, Williams sought pension and medical aid from the government for the first time, but despite the precedents set by Margaret Corbin and other Revolutionary War women, she was denied aid and died in a pauper's grave.
THE SHIELDMAIDENS OF THE NORTHWhile the nations of Scandinavia are today known mostly for exporting cellphones, absurdly sturdy cars and a weird, 50/50 split between operatic, technical black metal and bippity little electropop songs, back in the Dark Ages the commodity they shipped the most of was horrific Viking slaughter. The martial cultures of the old Norse emphasized honor through combat, and young, unattached, healthy women were no exception. If all the single guys in your village were deformed, underaged or just losers, it was entirely possible (and even expected) for a young woman to take up arms and ship out on the next raiding boat.
The Vikings weren’t big on history or writing, so most accounts of shieldmaidens are from armies that fought off Viking assaults and discovered that some of the dead were women. One thing Vikings were good at, though, was storytelling, and the heroic figures of Brunnhilde, Hervor and the Valkyrie tradition are believed to be the ultimate expression of the shieldmaiden tradition.
LT. CORDELIA E. COOK, NURSING CORPS, U.S. ARMYRecords on Cordelia Cook are surprisingly scarce for the first woman to receive not only the Bronze Star but the Purple Heart for her service. Cook won both medals during her service in Italy working at a field hospital, and while the Bronze Medal can be awarded for either battlefield heroism or significantly meritorious service behind the lines, the Purple Heart implies that Cook was close enough to the front to have been wounded by enemy action, which could mean anything from artillery fire to being overrun by German tanks. At any rate, the combination of the two awards surely proves that Cook went above and beyond the call of duty in her service as a military nurse. Many other women in the nurse corps did as well, with several other nurses eventually receiving Silver Stars for their service, but Cook was the only one to be wounded in the line of duty.
DAHOMEY AMAZONSWhile nobody has ever managed to find a believable equivalent to the Amazons of Greek myth, their name and legend spread far and wide, most famously attaching itself to the elite, all-female royal bodyguard of the kings of Dahomey (today part of the Republic of Benin). The Dahomey Amazons (popularly called Mino, meaning “our mothers,” by the all-male regular army) eventually expanded from a small fighting unit to a group of four thousand to six thousand female warriors, comprising roughly a third of the overall Dahomey military.
While recruitment was limited to the ahosi or “king’s wives,” the ahosi was by no means your usual harem. It often included hundreds of women, some who joined voluntarily and some condemned to it after their fathers or husbands found them disrespectful. And training was fierce, emphasizing intense physical exercise and drills.
The Mino were also extremely well-equipped compared to most native African troops, benefitting from Dahomey’s lucrative status as a slave-trade hub. Initially armed with Danish flintlocks (part of the payment for a load of slaves), the Amazons were carrying fairly high-tech Winchester repeaters when King Behanzin reacted to continuing European border violations by starting a war with France in 1890.
This was an extremely risky move on his part, regardless of how many tired “cheese-eating surrender monkey” jokes you’ve heard, because since the rule of Louis XIV, the French Army has been one of the last military forces on Earth you wanted to go pick a fight with. In spite of this, French troops lost a number of major battles against the Mino in the early stages of the war. Contemporary European journalists and historians claimed that the excessively polite and chivalrous French soldiers hesitated before shooting or stabbing women, while other sources claim that it was more that the Mino fought with astonishing ferocity, courage and skill, “the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers.”
The French eventually got over their hesitation problems with the help of the Foreign Legion, naval artillery, cavalry units, marine units and some of the first machine guns used in combat, conquering the tiny kingdom of Dahomey in 1894. But the Legionnaires themselves told stories of the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Mino, the last known member of which finally died in 1979.
SGT. LEIGH ANN HESTER, U.S. ARMYOfficial American policy is to allow women access to nearly every role in the armed forces except those that explicitly require front-line, face-to-face, infantry combat. Women can control fighter jets and even assault helicopters at the front because that would mean they would only be fighting with a rifle if they're shot down or under similarly unwanted situations, but they can’t be part of standard infantry, special forces, Air Force combat controllers or medevac teams, or even armor and APC crews, since all of these professions tend to involve small-arms fighting more often than not. If this doesn’t really seem to make that much sense, don’t worry, because Silver Star recipient Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester proved emphatically and empirically that it’s all a bunch of bull anyway.
Sgt. Hester was a Kentucky National Guard trooper and part of the 617th Military Police, escorting a supply convoy during March 2005 in what was supposedly a secure rear area in Salman Pak, Iraq (remember, most women in modern militaries get shuffled to second- or third-line areas where they’ll be “safe”) when roughly 50 insurgents snagged the entire convoy with RPGs and light machine guns in a carefully planned and potentially lethal ambush.
Hester ordered her squad to charge through the kill zone to reach a position where she knew she could fight more effectively, at which point she and her superior, Staff Sgt. Timothy Hein, personally assaulted an enemy trench with grenades and rifle fire. After a half hour of furious, close-range combat, 27 of the enemy had been killed, with at least three kills credited to Hester personally. Hester, Hein and combat medic Jason Mike each received a Silver Star for heroism (and Hein later found himself upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross), and while other American women have received the Silver Star for courage under fire, Hester became the first female Silver Star recipient for showing courage by returning fire.
LT. LYDIA LITVYAK, SOVIET AIR FORCEThe Night Witches weren’t the only Russian women fighting fascism in the air. The Soviet Air Forces also featured female-only bomber, ground-attack and fighter squadrons, and talented flight instructor Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak (who had been part of Soviet women’s flying clubs since she was 14) was permitted to join the 586th Fighter Regiment after inflating her logged flying time by 100 hours.
Friends and commanding officers remembered Litvyak as an exceptional pilot and a uniquely aggressive and determined woman, even compared to her fellow female pilots and soldiers. Litvyak and a few other talented women (including Katya Budonova, second-highest scoring female fighter pilot) were eventually transferred to the conventional, all-male 437th Fighter Regiment, where Lydia first had a chance to experience real combat.
On her third mission with the 437th only three days after her arrival, Litvyak validated the Regiment’s choice to adopt her by first shooting down a Junkers Ju-88 bomber and one of the escorting Messerschmitt Me-109Gs that was pursuing her commander. The 109’s pilot, an 11-victory ace and Iron Cross recipient, was unable to believe that he’d been shot down by a woman until he met Lydia herself, who patiently recounted the exact events of the dogfight from memory, right down to unit numbers and insignia.
Litvyak’s victories are generally believed to be the first scored by any woman in air-to-air combat, and she went on to add another 10 or 11 to her score before disappearing over the Donbass. She was jumped by as many as eight 109s while escorting a flight of Shturmovik ground-attack planes, and her body has never been conclusively recovered.
MAJ. LYUDMILA PAVLICHENKO, SOVIET SNIPER CORPSA humble Ukrainian factory girl and graduate student of history, Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko joined a students’ shooting club in Kiev at the age of 14, an opportunity generally not offered to women outside of the Soviet Union (much like Lydia Litvyak’s membership in a flying club), and something that turned out to pay huge dividends during World War II.
Four years after her successful thesis defense, Pavlichenko put her academic career on hold in order to be one of the first volunteers at the Kievan recruiting office. Refusing the offer to become a nurse, Pavlichenko demonstrated her outstanding marksmanship to the Soviet Army and became one of an estimated 2,000 female snipers to serve in the Red Army.
Pavlichenko served primarily in her native Ukraine, nailing her first two kills in the tiny town of Belyayevka before moving on to the defense of Odessa and Sevastopol. In a single year of fighting with the advanced but notoriously finicky SVT-40 semi-auto sniper rifle, Lyuda Mykhailivna was credited with 309 confirmed kills, 36 of which were enemy snipers she was assigned to hunt down.By way of comparison, Ivan Sidorenko, the (officially) greatest Soviet sniper of the war had around 500 confirmed kills after six years of continuous combat. Unfortunately, Pavlichenko’s combat career was cut short by shrapnel fire. She survived, but the Red Army decided she was worth more as a propaganda tool than as a soldier. Maj. Pavlichenko toured Canada and the United States, where reporters put her legendary sharpshooter’s patience to the test with questions about why her dress skirt was so much longer than those of American WACs, and helpfully informed her that her uniform made her look fat.
After receiving a signed Colt 1911 and scoped Winchester rifle (neither of which she used on the asshole reporter who told her she looked fat), Lyuda Pavlichenko returned to the USSR to serve as an instructor. At the end of the war, she returned to Kiev University to a quiet and rewarding career as an official historian.
Next: Epically Hilarious Internet Photos
LADY TRIEU / TRIEU THI TRINH, THIRD-CENTURY VIETNAMVirtually all of Vietnamese history consists of a seemingly infinite struggle against incredibly powerful and overbearing foreign interests determined to control the nation through military might, economic control or cultural dominance. When people think of the countries that have tried (unsuccessfully) to tell Vietnam what to do, they typically think of France (the original European colonial occupiers of the territory), Japan (who attempted to draw Vietnam into their World War II Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere) and the United States (who just wanted to set a bunch of Communists on fire and didn’t really have many plans beyond that stage), but Vietnam’s oldest and most intimidating enemy has always been China. Fortunately for Vietnam, they’ve always had women like Trieu Thi Trinh.
Lady Trieu, as she was known, had one of the most badass sayings in history: “I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man” Maybe a little bit wordy, but a hell of a lot more impressive than “Girl power!”
Facing the armies of the Eastern Wu Chinese state, Trieu was a half-real/half-legendary figure said to have commanded her troops from the back of an armored elephant (very possible), to have worn a suit of solid-gold armor (possible, but impractical and unlikely), and to have stood over 9 feet tall with breasts 3 feet long (uhh, yeah). Whatever Trieu Thi Trinh’s real accomplishments and attributes were, she served as an iconic figure for generations of Vietnamese women, and to this day many Vietnamese cities feature a Trieu Street.