By Julie Provost
In 1636 the first militia regiment was organized in Massachusetts. These units are the oldest in the military and with them came the creation of the National Guard. It wasn’t until 1956–320 years later–that women were allowed to join.
Over the years, laws have changed, allowing women to join and serve their country along with the men that have been able to do so for hundreds of years.
Here is the history of where we have been and where we are now.
Congress pushes forward legislation allowing women to join the National Guard as officers in the medical field. Two days later, Captain Norma Parsons is the first female to enter the Air Guard and is sworn in as a nurse with the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Tactical Hospital. She is followed by Lieutenant Sylvia Marie St. Charles Law, the first women to join the Army Guard in January 1957 when she joins the Alabama National Guard’s 109th Evacuation Hospital.
President John F. Kennedy mobilizes 44,000 Army Guard members during the Cold War. Included in those Guard members are a handful of women nurses. This is the first time that women in the Guard are mobilized.
A law authorizes the enlistment of women in the National Guard. From now on, the Guard is open to female officers and enlisted personnel. The first female enlists in the Air National Guard in 1968. Although these women signed up for combat support positions, many still found themselves in combat situations themselves.
The Army opens flight training to Army National Guard women. Chief Warrant Officer Diane Dowd of the Connecticut National Guard’s 143rd Aviation Company becomes the first female aviator.
Women could attend flight training for the first time. 2nd Lieutenant Marilyn Koon became the Air National Guard’s first female pilot with the Arizona National Guard’s 161st Air Refueling group. Later in 1984, she led the 1st Air Guard all-female crew to fly a tanker on a refueling mission.
By the late 70s, there were approximately 13,000 officers and enlisted women in the Army National Guard.
Private First Class Charla Shull of the Missouri National Guard’s, 1138th Military Police Company, was the first woman in the National Guard to come under enemy fire in December 1989 in Panama. She went on to serve in Operation Desert Storm.
During the Gulf War, hundreds of women deployed to Saudi Arabia to support the allied effort to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Of the 34 active duty Guard members who died during the Gulf War, eight were women.
After the Gulf War, women began assuming more key leadership positions within the Guard and were able to work their way up in the ranks. Sharon Vanderzyl was promoted to Brigadier General, becoming the first flag officer in the Army Guard.
Major General Martha T. Rainville became the first women in 360 years of the National Guard to serve as a State Adjutant General of Vermont. She commanded 3,800 members of the Vermont Army and Air National Guard.
Sergeant Leigh Anne Hester, an MP in the Kentucky National Guard’s 617th Military Police Company, was the first to receive the Silver Star since WWII and the first to be cited for valor in close quarters combat for her heroic actions in Iraq in March 2005.
Today, women make up about 14 percent of the National Guard. Women can sign up for the jobs they want and can even serve in combat. Even though it took a while for women to be allowed to join the National Guard, they are very much apart of that branch of service today, serving at home, Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else they are needed.
Julie Provost is an associate editor at Military One Click and a National Guard spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.