By Devon L. Suits, Army News ServiceAugust 26, 2019
WASHINGTON -- Observed on Aug. 26, Women's Equality Day commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote. While the change to the Constitution was significant toward shaping gender equality, it highlights the complicated journey women had to gain equal rights.
"Commemorating the adoption of the 19th Amendment on Women's Equality Day is so very significant," said Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the adjutant general of Texas. Norris and Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham recently spoke about women who paved the way for today's equality.
For instance, Abigail Adams wrote to the Continental Congress in 1776, asking them to, "Remember the ladies," when making critical decisions to shape the country. Later in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott led the first women's rights convention in New York.
The convention sparked decades of activism through the Women's Suffrage Movement, which helped lay a foundation for the 19th Amendment and paved the way for women to serve and fight alongside men in combat today.
Later the civil rights movement of the 1950s generated the Equal Pay Act in 1963, followed by the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And in 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments was signed into law.
However, "women have been serving their nation through military service for far longer than we have had the right to vote," Norris said.
During the Revolutionary War, women followed their husbands into combat out of necessity. They would often receive permission to serve in military camps as laundresses, cooks, and nurses. Some women even disguised themselves as men to serve in combat.
"One of the more famous women to do this was Deborah Samson Gannett, who enlisted in 1782 under her brother's name and served for 17 months," Norris said. "Wounded by musket ball fire, she cut it out of her thigh so that a doctor wouldn't discover she was a woman."
The Army later discovered Gannett's gender, and she was discharged honorably. She later received a military pension for her service.
Countless examples exist of women serving in various roles to support military operations during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and beyond.
Notably during World War I, upwards of 25,000 American women between the ages of 21 and 69 served overseas. While the most significant percentage of women served as nurses, some were lucky enough to assist as administrators, secretaries, telephone operators, and architects.
These women helped propel the passage of the 19th Amendment through their hard work and dedication to service.
From the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 to the day the Defense Department opened all combat career fields to women in 2016, the role of women in the Army has steadily increased.
"Women are tough," Norris said.
"We have been proving it for a long time now, and we have a knack for forcing change," Norris added. "As Col. Oveta Hobby, a fellow Texan and the first director of the Women's Army Corps, put it so well: 'Women who step up want to be measured as citizens of the nation -- not as women.'"
These are exciting times, said Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, the Army's outgoing assistant chief of staff for Installation Management. Women are now on the forefront, serving in military occupational specialties they haven't seen in Army history.
"Quite frankly, the Army is not [solely] a man's job," she said.
After a 38-year career, Bingham is now enjoying her last days in service, as she waits for her official retirement in September. During her career, she served as the first female quartermaster general, the first woman to serve as garrison commander of Fort Lee, Virginia. She was also the first female to serve in commanding general roles at White Sands Missile Range and Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Michigan.
"There is no way that I would've stayed in the Army 38 years if I didn't feel a sense of inclusion. I will never downplay the word 'inclusion' -- ever," she said. "It is one thing to have a seat at the table. However, it is another to feel included in the decisions being made at the table."
Considered to be a trailblazer by others, Bingham acknowledges the historical significance of her stepping into each position. However, recognizing the "trailblazer moniker" brings to light all the areas that women have yet to serve, she said.
"We will get there, as women continually distinguish themselves in roles that they haven't typically [served]," she said. "The way I see it, you can choose to spotlight [trailblazers] but progress is having … more [women serving] than what we had before."
Similar to Bingham, Norris is the first woman to serve as the Texas adjutant general. As the senior military officer, she is responsible for the overall health, wellbeing, training, and readiness of Texas' Soldiers, Airmen, civilian employees, and volunteers.
"I am simply another individual in a long line of leaders of Texas military forces," she said.
"The fact that I am the first woman is secondary to me. What truly matters is that we have a leader of the Texas Military Department who is ready to command and take care of those who serve. I believe I fulfill that role based on qualifications and experience, not by being a woman."
When it comes to women's equality, the Army is doing a great job, Norris added. Based on her experience, the military is often the leader when it comes to opening up roles for women to serve.
Managing talent will be critical to the Army's way ahead. It is about getting the right person, to the right place, at the right time, regardless of their race or gender, she explained.
And to all the women out there that are considering the Army as a future career, "I would tell them -- join! Your nation needs you," Norris said. In 2015, Capt. Kristen
Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first female Soldiers to earn the Ranger tab, she noted.
"They are following a long line of powerful women who have forced change in our culture and by their actions opened doors for the generations that follow them," she said.
"I challenge you to join and be the first one to break [a] barrier down," Norris added. "The Army opened more doors for me than I could ever have imagined possible. It has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime to serve our state and nation, and I encourage others to do the same."