October is a big month for the U.S. Navy, with two noteworthy dates to celebrate: The official birthday of the Navy, on October 13, and the unofficial, but still highly celebrated, Navy Day, on October 27.
This year, the Navy marks a momentous milestone with its 247th birthday. As we honor our active-duty and reserve Navy members, retirees, and veterans, let’s look at a timeline of wonderful women who’ve dedicated their lives to serving our country.
Heading to the High Seas
The very first record of women at sea dates back to the War of 1812, in which U.S. ship logs show women were serving aboard warships as contract nurses.
Answering the Yeoman’s Call
Historical records show that on March 17, 1917, the first woman to enlist in the Navy was Loretta Perfectus Walsh.
Born on April 22, 1896, Loretta was the first woman to serve beyond a nursing assignment, in any of the U.S. Armed Forces. Loretta opened the door for the first of roughly 11,000 yeomanettes that would hold mostly clerical jobs throughout World War I. Worthy of note, at this time the women received the same benefits as their male colleagues—including identical pay and veteran benefits.
Loretta went on to become Chief Yeoman and the first female Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, serving until 1921. Unfortunately, she fell victim to influenza and passed away in 1929. In her memory, the Department of the Navy marks her birthday (March 21, 1917), as a date in American naval history and conducts a wreath-laying ceremony at her gravesite every year.
Susan Ahn Cuddy, born in Los Angeles, California, in 1915, became the first Asian American female to serve in the U.S. Navy in 1942.
Susan had just graduated from San Diego State University, when she joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (or WAVES) program during World War II. She excelled in her position, and would go on to become the first-ever female gunnery officer, reaching the rank of lieutenant.
Leaving the service in 1947, Susan went on to work for many years with the National Security Agency, before retiring and moving back home to LA in 1959.
The first African American WAVES reported for duty in late 1944, too. Harriet Pickens and Francis Willis, both educated and accomplished women before entering the service, enlisted and quickly rose to become the first Black women officers, just one month after enlisting.
Phyllis Mae Dailey, a Columbia University student from New York, became the first black woman to enlist in the Navy Nurse Corps, in March 1945. Throughout World War II, Phyllis was the first of only four black women to service in any capacity in the Navy.
Breaking Down Barriers
Loretta, Susan, Harriet, Francis, and Phyllis are just a few of the many sisters-in-arms who’ve helped open doors for women and people of color to follow.
In more recent years, we’ve seen several women rise and make Naval history:
- In 2006, Commander Lenora C. Langlais became the first black Navy Nurse Corps Officer to receive a Purple Heart in combat (during Operation Iraqi Freedom).
- Admiral Michelle J. Howard became the first woman four-star admiral in the Navy in 2014–and the first black woman to achieve four stars in any branch of the armed forces.
- The Navy celebrated its first class of women Naval Academy graduates in 2014.
- Dominique Saavedra, became the first woman to earn a submarine qualification in 2016.
- In 2021, the first woman graduated from a Naval Special Warfare (NSW) assessment and became a Special Warfare Combatant craft Crewman (SWCC). Her identity was not released, as is standard practice for elite service members.
- And, also just last year, 51-year-old Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt became the only woman in history to command a U.S. aircraft carrier (and an 11-aircraft carrier fleet).
Inspiring us all, these tenacious and dedicated women are strong examples for us all to follow. Their stories reflect our collective dedication to our country. Watching them rise through the ranks, battle adversity—and find success—is a north star for us all. We celebrate the Navy’s birthday this month, and we hold these women in our hearts every day.
I hope you’ll follow this site and blog for more news, stories, and insights about women in the military. Have a question or story to tell? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me any time.