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Defense Health Agency Marks Women’s Equality Day

Image of Defense Health Agency Marks Women’s Equality Day. The Defense Health Agency recognized Women’s Equality Day with a virtual presentation about the history of women in military medicine by Laura Cutter, the chief archivist of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. (Credit: Maria Christina Yager)

The Defense Health Agency recognized Women’s Equality Day, the celebration of the19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, with a virtual presentation about the history of women in military medicine, Aug. 10. 

The event was organized by Paul Reynolds, special observance program manager for DHA’s Force Resilience Office, and featured a presentation by Laura Cutter, the chief archivist of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, titled “In Common Danger and Endurance: Women in Military Medicine.”

In her opening remarks, DHA Director U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland  acknowledged, “we should celebrate how far we've come … but… we can't rest on those advancements because we know that equality across the board, whether it’s about gender, race or ethnicity, brings so much value to society and certainly medicine.”

Cutter’s presentation addressed the changing role of women in military medicine from the Civil War to the modern era.

“Generally, there was an overarching belief that women should not be part of the regular military,” Cutter said. “Broadly, in American society, many felt that women, especially young women, were fundamentally unsuited to the hardships of military life and ought to stay home.”

“During the Civil War, women contracted with the Union military as nurses,” she added. “Free black women worked as nurses along with white women with roles and tasks often, and unsurprisingly, segregated by race and class. In the Confederacy, enslaved women could be hired out to Confederate hospitals.”

Cutter discussed significant women of the era including Dorothea Dix, who served as superintendent of the U.S. Army nurses during the Civil War, and set qualifications for contract nurses; Harriet Tubman, who was famous as an underground railroad conductor, but also served as a U.S. Army nurse in South Carolina caring for black soldiers and liberated slaves; and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army.

“Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor due to her service only to have it revoked two years before her death in an attempt by Congress to reduce the long list of elderly pension recipients who had been honored as civilians during the war,” said Cutter. “Although she was never very deferential to authority, Walker refused to acknowledge Congress's action, and continued to wear her medal to all public appearances.”

Cutter went on to cover many significant post-Civil War milestones for women in military medicine:

  • During Spanish American War, when the army had too few male nurses to provide needed care, Congress authorized the hiring of female nurses.
  • The Army Reorganization Act of 1901 established the Army Nurse Corps as a permanent unit.
  • During World War I, the Red Cross certified more than 1,800 African American Nurses for service. However, only 18 were allowed to serve and their actual service was delayed until after the end of the war, which denied them most of the benefits they would have otherwise been entitled to—including veteran status.
  • During World War II, over 350,000 women served in all branches of the service.
  • The Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 granted women the right to serve as permanent, regular members of all branches of the service.

In the modern era, “approximately 37,000 female service members from all U.S. military branches were deployed to the Middle East and surrounding areas between August 1990 and March 1991,” said Cutter. “Officially, women still did not serve in combat. However, the nature of the conflict did mean that lines of combat consistently moved, and after more than a century of resistance to women in or near combat in any capacity, that resistance was coming to a close.”

In 2003, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat.

The presentation sparked much engagement from the more than 430 participants with one attendee sharing her personal connection to nurses who served in the Korean War. “This [discussion] touches me as my father, who is still with me at 94, served in the Korean War and was severely wounded but survived and ultimately thrived. These women cared for him and impacted the quality of care he received!”

Another employee shared how “we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.”

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Tanya Johnson, senior enlisted leader for the DHA, gave remarks at the close of the event. “No matter what walk of life you come from, or whatever your ethnic background is, as a woman, we've overcome some tremendous obstacles along the way … we have opened so many doors that people probably don't even realize just by that tenacity, and our ability to overcome adversity.”

The 19th Amendment, which was certified on August 26, 1920, prohibits states and the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex.

Women's Equality Day was first celebrated in 1971 during the fight for women's equality and the Equal Rights Amendment. This was a major step in efforts to remove barriers to women's full participation in American public life.

“This observance invites all of us to focus our attention on women's continued efforts toward gaining full equality, which is essential to the public recognition of their dignity and contributions across our society,” said Christianne Witten, DHA chief of internal communications, and event moderator.

Watch the entire event recording here and find a copy of Ms. Cutter’s presentation on MS Teams InfoHub.

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Last Updated: September 06, 2023
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