More than 40,000 women currently serve as officers in the United States military, and they have Florence A. Blanchfield to thank for that.
Why? Because 73 years ago today – and shortly after Congress passed the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947 she worked so hard to create – Blanchfield became the first permanent woman officer in the military. Until then, commissions for women were only temporary.
During a ceremony at the Pentagon, General Dwight D. Eisenhower commissioned her as lieutenant colonel, the highest rank initially allowed for women; even though she is pictured with full birds on her shoulders, they were temporary. She became a trailblazer for all women in the military and not only nurses.
Today, more than 60 women are admirals or generals, although there is plenty of room for gender equity improvement. While the military addressed the pay gap, women still struggle to promote through the ranks. As of 2018, women comprised under 18 percent of all military officers, according to the Women’s Service Action Network.
Blanchfield’s commission came at the end of a storied career that began when she joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1917, serving in France during World War I. She followed that with assignments in the Philippines and China before becoming a staff officer for the U.S. Surgeon General in Washington, D.C. in 1935.
During World War II, Blanchfield became supervisor of the Army Nurse Corps, overseeing the growth of the Corps from 1,000 to more than 57,000 nurses who served in all major theaters of the war. She became chief of the Army Nurses Corps in 1943, and worked tirelessly to improve training opportunities for nurses to help them save lives at the front lines, often at great risk to themselves. More 20 nurses died serving, including 16 kill by the enemy, which also captured 83 nurses and held them as prisoners of war.
Yet, while more than 1,600 women received medals for their service – Blanchfield received the Distinguished Service Medal – they could hold only temporary ranks.
She first got temporary full commission status for nurses in 1944, followed by the permanent status in 1947 that has since expanded beyond nursing to all levels of the military.
Blanchfield died in 1971, buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. A military hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, bears her name.