When we think of veterans we often think of men who have served our country selflessly. It is a mistake to think that women rarely served in the military or that women's military service is a recent phenomena. Women have pretty much always served during war time. Examples abound from earlier wars like the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Unlike modern times, these earlier women had to often disguise themselves as men in order to serve their country. The topic of researching women veterans is vast and cannot be adequately covered in this short article, but some of these resources should help you in searching for information on the history of women veterans and the history of your ancestress.
Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence by Carol Berkin provides a glimpse of women who affected the war through their boycotts of English goods, raised money for the war effort and served as spies and soldiers. Don't forget to use the bibliography to search for other works on women in the revolutionary war. Google Books can also be a great source for digitized books. The 1856 work, The Women of the American Revolutionary War by Elizabeth F. Ellet can be found there, and provides even more stories of women's heroism during the war.
For information about women who served in the Civil War, consider the book, They Fought Like Demons by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook. This work chronicles women who dressed as men during the Civil War so that they could fight for their country. These early women, especially those whose secret was uncovered, were rarely given the respect and admiration they deserved. The web site Women of the American Civil War, includes a history of women Civil War soldiers and books available on the topic.
World War I saw an increase in women's role in the military as nurses. According to Women Veterans: Past, Present and Future, by the end of World War I over 34,000 women were serving as nurses in the military. By the end of World War II, some 350,000 women had served out of a military force of 12 million.
Researching a female ancestor who served in the military covertly may be difficult. These women used aliases and may or may not have been discovered. While you could try accessing military records for Revolutionary War or Civil War service the standard way, it may be more prudent to start by researching family legends, and history books about women who served in these wars.
Researching women who served during more modern times, World War I through the present should include the same type of research done for male veterans. Techniques include accessing military records, histories of units, and other resources such as obituaries, family histories and stories, local histories, etc.
When researching any ancestor it is vital to learn about the time period and what life was like in that period and under those circumstances. Some web sites that might give you a perspective about women's service include: Military Women Veterans: Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, includes information on stories of women who have served from Revolutionary War to the present. Also included is a memorial for women who have been killed in the war in Iraq. Experiencing War: Women at War is a project of the Veteran's History Project. Twelve women's stories are available on video and audio to download and listen to. You must have Real Player to listen and view the films, which is a free download with a link available at the site. These 12 interviews represent civilian and military women serving during World War II to the Persian Gulf. A link on the site provides a comprehensive list, by surname or theme of all veterans' stories that are part of the project.
Similarly, the Idaho State Historical Society has a Women in World War II Veteran's History Project online. This collection includes 48 interviews with women who served or were somehow affected by the War. Interviews include a Japanese American woman who was interred at Camp Minidoka; a woman who was in the British Royal Air Force; women who were in various branches of the military; and a woman who was part of the underground in the Netherlands. These stories bring alive the experience of women during this time period and can provide those of us who were not part of this era with some ideas about what life was like and women's contributions during this time.
Idaho is not the only state that has or is currently capturing the stories of women veterans. Maine, and North Carolina, have similar projects. "What did you do in the War Grandma" is a project that chronicles Rhode Island women's experience.
Some general military web sites that may help you research military ancestors include, Military Record Request; Department of Veterans Nationwide Gravesite Locator; American Battle Monuments Commission, and How to Trace Your US Military Ancestors.