Published On: Jan 24 2013 11:06:08 AM CSTUpdated On: Jan 24 2013 03:19:59 PM CST
One of the earliest -- and most famous -- examples of women in combat is Joan of Arc, the French teen whose divine visions compelled her to lead the French army to several important victories in the Hundred Years' War. She was later captured and burned at the stake for heresy when she was just 19.
In the United States, many women found themselves in the position of having to defend their homes against the British during the Revolutionary War. Some, like Molly Pitcher, fought in battle while others, like American artist Patience Lovell Wright, smuggled secret information to American forces in Philadelphia.
During the Civil War, women in both the North and South threw themselves into fundraising and supplying troops with everything they needed. Others took a move active role, caring for sick and injured soldiers on the front lines or through the United States Sanitary Commission, formed to improve conditions in army camps and hospitals.
More than 30,000 women served in World War I, mostly in the nursing corps, but in Russia some saw combat as well in "Women's Battalions," which are said to have fought well.
Women played an even bigger role in World War II. Approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces and more than 460 lost their lives as a result, including 16 from enemy fire. Several hundred thousand women served in combat roles, especially in anti-aircraft units, while others filled out the home labor force front, nicknamed "Rosie the Riveters."
Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots became the first women to fly military aircraft in 1942, taking on flight missions at bases across the country to free up male pilots for combat duty. Surviving members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Other countries, like Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland, put women on the front lines during World War II. Roza Shanina (pictured), a decorated Soviet sniper, was credited with 54 hits.
In the U.S., Congress first granted women status in the regular armed forces in 1948, but limited the number of women who could enlist as Army soldiers to 2 percent of the ranks. One female officer was allowed for every 10 enlisted women.
By the beginning of the 1970s, many Western armies began to admit women to serve active duty. Only some permit women in active combat. They are: New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland.
By the 1970s, women began taking on more leadership roles in the military. Along came the first woman to wear two stars, the first to serve as chaplain, the first to fly a helicopter and the first to complete naval flight school.
In 1994, the current ban on women in combat was signed by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin, although the policy rescinded the "risk rule."
Shannon Faulkner, a South Carolina woman, made headlines in 1995 when she became the first female cadet to enter The Citadel. She voluntarily resigned after just one week, disappointing many women's groups, but The Citadel has graduated 205 female cadets since her admission.