This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919. It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States.
At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.
The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.
The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.
Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.
Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson. As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.
Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.
In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.
This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.