It’s the last day of Women’s History Month. Where does the time go? I thought I had 31 days to write blog after blog about great women. I feel like I’ve let my female ancestors down by not spending more time talking about them.
I certainly won’t rectify that in one day. But, what I’d like to do for this farewell to Women’s History Month (until next year!) is highlight a few pioneering women who have served or are currently serving in the US military.
We’ll call these profiles HER-stories (get it? History, herstory, you get it. I’m not the first one to come up with it.)
Her-Stories: Women at Arms of the Past, Present and Future
The Sad, But Inspirational Past of Cathay Williams
Although she wasn’t the first woman to pose as a man to serve in combat (Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man to serve in General Washington’s army) Cathay Williams (1844 – 1892) was the first African-American woman to enlist in the army, even if she had to pretend to be a man to do it.
Disguised under the pseudonym “William Cathay,” Williams became the first and only female Buffalo Soldier.
Williams did not have an easy life, but it’s a life that deserves understanding and respect.
- She was born (ironically) in Independence, Missouri, a slave.
- After being captured by the Union Army, which considered captured slaves “contraband,” she was forced to work as a cook and washerwoman.
- She marched through numerous states during the Civil War with an infantry regimen and was present at battles, essentially serving as part of the US arm, without pay.
- After the war ended, Williams needed to earn a living and enlisted in the United States Regular Army (as a man).
- Shortly after her enlistment, Williams contracted smallpox.
- Possibly due to the effects of smallpox, or the cumulative effects of years of marching, she was frequently hospitalized.
- Eventually, approximately two years after she enlisted, a post surgeon discovered she was a woman.
- After she left the army, Williams married a man who stole her money and then made a living as a seamstress.
- After a reporter from St. Louis heard rumors of a female African-American who had served in the army, her life and military service narrative was published in The St. Louis Daily Times.
- Towards the end of her life, Williams, who suffered from many severe medical ailments, applied for a military disability pension (several other women, including the aforementioned Deborah Sampson, had done this and received benefits). Williams was denied.
- She likely died shortly afterward and her final resting place is now unknown.
The story of Williams may not have been happy or fair or inspiring in the traditional sense. But it’s important to know her-story. In an era when women had little to no control over their destinies, especially African-American female former slaves, she sought to make her own and despite setbacks and hardships, never gave up. She’d marched alongside men and survived battles and didn’t see why she couldn’t enlist along with other men as well. Her story may not be spectacular, but not all brave, resilient women need spectacular stories to be important.
Present Day Pioneer – General Lori Robinson
Gen. Lori J. Robinson is currently Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (USNORTHCOM and NORAD), making her, as of just 2016, the first woman in a combatant command. If you don’t speak military (which I don’t and had to look this up) and don’t understand why this is so impressive, feel free to click here. (I’ll wait for you…hint: the position requirements include a 4 star general or admiral, recommendation by the Secretary of Defense, nomination by the President and confirmation by the senate.) Super impressive, right?
Here are just a few additional highlights of Gen. Lori J. Robinson’s accomplished life and career, thus far.
- Joined the Air Force in 1982 through the ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire.
- Previous Commander of Pacific Air Forces, her area of responsibility spanned more than half the globe.
- One of just two female four-star generals in the Air Force.
- Recipient of 8 major awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.
- Earned her master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from College of Naval Command and Staff, Naval War College, Newport, R.I.
- Commanded an operations group, a training wing, an air control wing and deployed as Vice Commander of the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, leading more than 2,000 Airmen flying the B-1 Lancer, KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry aircraft in operations ENDURING and IRAQI FREEDOM.
- Air Force Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and served at the Pentagon as Director of the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Executive Action Group.
- Served as the Deputy Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command; Deputy, Combined Force Air Component Commander, U.S. Central Command, Southwest Asia, Vice Commander, Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
- Named one of the 100 most influential people for 2015-2016 in Time Magazine.
I could write about how amazing General Robinson, but I think VOA News already said it best:
“Lori Robinson is a role model for future female troops as she is the first woman to head a combatant command, which in the military, is the ultimate job. Women have been forbidden for years to enter combat roles, and this accomplishment by General Robinson will pave the way for women in military for years to come.”
Potential Shaper of the Future – Lt Col Amy McGrath, U.S. Marine Corps
While my daughter was not able to attend this event, our Girl Scout troop was lucky enough to be part of a Naval Academy tour given by Lt Col Amy McGrath, a former F-18 pilot and current Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy, which is just a short drive away from Northern Virginia in Maryland.
The girls were extremely impressed by this intelligent, no-nonsense, accomplished woman and everyone else should be too. Here are just a few highlights of her amazing accomplishments, which span from academia to sports to military to leadership achievements.
- One of 24 women who played on the Naval Academy’s first varsity women’s soccer team
- Holds a Masters of Arts in International/Global Security from The Johns Hopkins University
- Earned Graduate Certificate in Legislative Studies from Georgetown University.
- Graduate of the Marine Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Fighter Weapons Division Tactics Course, and Marine Corps Command and Staff College
- F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer to Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 121 and was deployed to Kyrgyzstan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom
- First female F-18 Naval Flight Officer in combat in Marine Corps history
- Accrued over 2000 flight hours, and flew 85+ combat missions
- Served in the Pentagon at Headquarters Marine Corps, Strategy & Plans Division, International Affairs Branch as the Marine Corps’ liaison to other federal government agencies
- Inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame
Fun fact: Her call name is “Krusty” because of her flaming red hair that would get pressed down and sprout out at the bottom like Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons. And since The Simpsons is one of my family’s favorite shows, that’s an added bonus to her already high marks for awesomeness.
You can read about her more on the Naval Academy website or in the book Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq by
So how is Lt Col Amy McGrath the future?
Well, she happens to be retiring and joining the civilian ranks soon. Perhaps we might see her run for office in the near future? I know that we would be lucky to have such an intelligent, accomplished woman helping to shape the future of our country. (Can she run now? Special election? Something? We need women like her in office!)
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