The History of Women in the U.S. Armed Forces

Mickey Markoff
5 min readApr 10, 2024
Black and white Photo of Jacqueline Cochran in flying uniform standing in front of Lockheed F-104G Super Starfighter plane on runway. Posted on mickey markoff 2024 article on women in aviation; credit — US San Diego Air & Space Museum

Executive Producer Mickey Markoff celebrates the history of women pilots and their contributions to U.S. aviation.

For over two centuries, brave American men and women have answered the call to serve their country. While seeing both men and women serve in active duty may seem like a normal occurrence today, this was not always the case. Historically, women were only allowed to serve in non-combat roles for many years. During WW II for example, about 34,000 women served in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. However, it wasn’t until 2013 the ban preventing women from serving in combat roles was lifted. Today, women comprise over 17.5% of the active-duty U.S. military, a historic high, and their contributions span across all branches and specializations. During Women’s History Month, Air and Sea Show Executive Producer Mickey Markoff shared insights on the aviators to the who redefined the landscape of the U.S. military, the pioneering fighter pilots, and more women who have shaped our nation’s history. Let’s recap a few of the many trailblazers we wrote about last month!

From early aviators to modern leaders, women have made great waves of progress in the U.S. military Their stories intertwine courage with capability, creating a legacy of breaking barriers that resonate deeply with themes celebrated by Mickey Markoff and the Hyundai Air and Sea Show. The story of women in military aviation began long before they could officially bear the title of military pilots. During World War II, figures such as Jacqueline Cochran emerged as pivotal. Cochran, an accomplished pilot, led the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which saw over a thousand women pilots flying aircraft from factories to bases, crucially freeing up male pilots for combat roles. These women, though initially classified as civilians, laid the indispensable groundwork for the integration of women into military aviation roles. Their efforts, fraught with challenges and bounded by the era’s stringent limitations, paved the runway for future generations to take flight under official capacities.

Transitioning from the foundational efforts of early pioneers to the bold strides taken in recent decades, two figures stand out for their historic firsts and enduring influence: Jeannie Leavitt and Captain Remoshay Nelson. As the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Jeannie Leavitt shattered a significant glass ceiling. Her entry into the once male-dominated realm of fighter aviation marked a pivotal shift in military policy and perception. Leavitt’s illustrious career, which saw her leading combat missions and later commanding entire fighter wings, serves as a testament to the capability and readiness of women to operate at the highest levels of military performance. Her journey reflects a broader shift within the armed forces, inspiring countless women to pursue careers in aviation.

Another figure who epitomizes the spirit of progress is Captain Remoshay Nelson. Not only has she excelled in her role as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, but she also made history as the first African American woman to serve with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s elite air demonstration squadron. Nelson’s role in the Thunderbirds not only underscores her exceptional skill and dedication but also highlights the evolving face of military aviation.

Women in the Armed Forces and the Power of Progress

As we explore these stories, we see the embodiment of determination and change, a theme that resonates with the celebratory ethos of the Hyundai Air and Sea Show, which proudly showcases the pinnacle of military prowess and innovation.

The impact of women in the U.S. military extends beyond the skies into the strategic command centers and the decks of naval ships. Two notable figures, Admiral Grace Hopper and Admiral Michelle Howard, exemplify this extension of influence from air to sea, demonstrating leadership that reshapes entire sectors of the armed forces. Known affectionately as “Amazing Grace,” Admiral Grace Hopper was not only a pioneering computer scientist but also one of the first female admirals in the U.S. Navy. Her work was revolutionary, developing early programming languages that underpin many modern software applications. Hopper’s contributions went beyond technology; her visionary approach to the digital future of the Navy showcased the critical role of intellectual power in military readiness and efficiency.

Admiral Michelle Howard’s career is marked by a series of historic achievements, including becoming the first African American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore, and the first woman to become a four-star admiral. Her leadership roles, particularly her service as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, highlight the breaking of traditional barriers and the enhancement of women’s roles within naval command structures.

From combat pilots to advocates for veterans, women in military aviation have not only participated in direct action but have also significantly contributed to policy and support for the armed forces community. U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth exemplifies valor and advocacy. As an Army National Guard helicopter pilot, she served in the Iraq War where she endured severe injuries that resulted in the loss of both her legs. Duckworth’s resilience transitioned from military service to political advocacy, where she has been a vocal supporter of veterans’ rights and military reform. Her life’s work underscores the critical role of experienced voices in shaping policies that affect the military and its veterans.

The Air and Sea Show & The Importance of Celebrating Military Achievements

The Hyundai Air and Sea Show, under the stewardship of Mickey Markoff, plays a pivotal role in celebrating the advancements and contributions of military personnel, including the groundbreaking achievements of women. By featuring technology demonstrations, guest speakers, and tributes, the show offers a public platform to honor and recognize the skills, bravery, and dedication of these trailblazers.

The legacy of women in U.S. military aviation is that of courage, innovation, and leadership. From early aviators breaking through rigid norms to modern warriors and commanders reshaping military operations, their contributions are profound. The Hyundai Air and Sea Show serves as a grand stage to both celebrate and inspire this ongoing legacy, reflecting Mickey Markoff’s commitment to showcasing the exceptional capabilities and heroic stories of the U.S. military. As we look forward, it is clear that the influence of women in military aviation will only continue to grow, driven by a commitment to excellence and equality. All those who bravely serve our nation should be celebrated, remembered, and honored.

Originally published at on April 10, 2024.