When nominating Adm. Lisa Franchetti to lead the US Navy, last week, President Joe Biden said it would be “historic” if she were confirmed by the Congress. If confirmed, Franchetti would be the first woman to be a Pentagon service chief and the first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Throughout her career, Admiral Franchetti has demonstrated extensive expertise in both the operational and policy arenas,” Biden said justifying his choice in the teeth of opposition from the Pentagon.

American women had to struggle hard for gender equality in the armed forces. Adm. Franchetti’s likely elevation as US Navy chief signals the culmination of a long struggle.

Although the US has fought many wars from the time of independence in the 18 th.century, and women have invariably participated in them in various was, permission to participate in ground combat was given to them only in 2015, centuries later.

Even permanent employment in the armed forces was given to them only in 1948, when President Harry Truman signed the “Women’s Armed Services Integration Act” into law, officially allowing women to serve as full, permanent members of all branches of the Armed Forces.

Women were very much part of the war of independence, accompanying the revolutionaries mending clothes, tended to wounds, foraging for food, cooking and even loading cannons.

Writing in the United Services Organization (USO) website, Danielle DeSimone says that Deborah Sampson fought in the revolutionary war disguised as a man. She was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the revolutionary army.

During the American Civil War in the 1860s, nearly 20,000 women lent their “womanly skills” as nurses on the battle field. Dorothea Dix was appointed superintendent of the United States Army Nurses. About 1,000 women indulged in the daring act of disguising themselves as men to take part in combat.

During World War I, more than 3,000 American nurses were deployed to British-run field hospitals in France. It was also during  World War I  that women were allowed to openly serve in the US military. They were not informal adjuncts.

To send more men to the front lines, 12,000 women served as clerks, radio and telephone and radio operators, often located only a few kilometres from the frontline trenches.

In Word War II, 16 million Americans fought on the allied side. Though most were men, there were all-female units like the Women’s  Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). Women were recruited to the Navy Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).The Marine Corps and the Coast Guard had Women’s Reserves. In total, nearly 350,000 American women were in uniform during World War II.

But these women took on only non-combat roles. The idea was to free up men to do the actual fighting. But the women drove vehicles, repaired aeroplanes, worked in laboratories, in cryptology, served as radio and telephone operators and rigged parachutes. They even test-flew planes and trained males in air combat tactics.

57,000 served in the Army Nurse Corps and 11,000 in the Navy Nurse Corps. Army Col. Ruby Bradley, a nurse in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, was kept at an internment camp in the Philippines for 37 months, performed 230 major surgeries and delivered 13 babies. In all, 432 women were killed in the fighting in World War II, and 88 were taken prisoner.

In those days, the US armed forces treated its women as women and expected them to maintain their femininity. Danielle DeSimone says that the military women wore skirts, not slacks, nail polish, makeup and feminine hairstyles. “These were not only allowed but encouraged,” she adds.

However, shock awaited the women after the war ended in 1945. Women hoped to continue their military career, but were pushed out of their posts so that the men returning from the war could have their jobs. “ Some women would struggle for decades to obtain veteran status or benefits for their service during WWII,” De Simone says.

However, relief came in 1948, when President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, officially allowing women to serve as “full, permanent members of all branches of the Armed Forces.”

But there were flaws: The 1948 Act restricted the number of women who could serve to only 2% of each branch. It also limited how many women could become officers. Additionally, female service members could be automatically discharged if they became pregnant. They were not allowed to command men or serve in combat positions, DeSimone points out.

However, there was a concession to Black women. President Truman issued the “Integration of the Armed Forces executive order” desegregating the military and ensuring that Black women could serve equally in all branches of the military.

In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, 120,000 women enlisted for active duty. Although they could not serve in combat roles, they served as military police, engineers and nurses. In the Vietnam War, 11,000 women served in the field, mostly as nurses but also as air traffic controllers and intelligence officers.

There was a big jump for women in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson opened promotions for women to general and flag ranks. In 1972, women were allowed to command units that included men. In 1975, the Pentagon announced that pregnant women could remain in the military.

In the subsequent decades, a woman became navy fighter pilot and a four-star Army general in the Army. Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, was the first woman to receive the Silver Star for direct combat action (In Iraq).

In the Gulf War (1990-1991) more than 40,000 women were deployed in combat zones, but they still could not “technically” serve in direct combat roles or assignments. But in 1994, President Bill Clinton rescinded the “Risk Rule,” allowing women to serve in all positions in the military except in “direct ground combat” roles. This allowed many women to still participate as aviators and sailors.

However, in 2013, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women in combat roles would be lifted entirely and that females would be allowed to serve in direct ground combat roles. In 2015, this was put into action.

“This historic change opened up hundreds of thousands of jobs for women in the military and essentially ensured that as long as female service members completed the necessary training and requirements, they could now serve in almost any role in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Adm. Lucy Franchetti’s rise to the very top of the Navy and the armed forces as a whole is the culmination of a long and arduous process of recognising gender equality by the US political and military system.