Securing Our Future—Then and Now: Servicewomen Put Their Stamp on a Nation

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.

Over the years, the US Postal Service has honored many American women for their historic accomplishments in the fields of politics, business, science, the arts, and education. Women who have served their country in a military capacity, however, have only infrequently been honored with a postage stamp commemorating their service.

Although the Postal Service began issuing commemorative stamps in 1893, it wasn’t until 1928 that a stamp honoring a military woman was printed. The “Molly Pitcher Stamp” was issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth. The stamp did not depict Molly Pitcher. It was a regular, everyday, two-cent, carmine colored stamp picturing George Washington with the name “Molly Pitcher” printed over the face of Washington in black ink. Fifty years later, the Postal Service issued a ten-cent commemorative postcard with an artist’s drawing of Molly Pitcher in the act of loading a cannon and firing it as she had done. Unfortunately, no eye witness accounts of Mary’s actions exist. The only documentation available today that verifies Mary’s service is an act passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1822 granting Mary Hays McCauly (the name of her second husband) a pension for her services during the Revolution. At that time, most widows received pensions for the services of their deceased husbands rather than for their own service. Thus, the Pennsylvania Legislature’s action indicates that they believed Mary herself had contributed to the American cause.

In 1931, the Postal Service issued a special stamp to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Red Cross. A non-profit, humanitarian organization which aids people all over the world in times of war and disaster, the Red Cross has, since its conception, worked with the military to provide aid to soldiers. The two-cent black and red stamp pictured a Red Cross nurse kneeling with outstretched arms in front of a globe. The design for the stamp was derived from a well-known 1930s poster entitled “The Greatest Mother.”

The Postal Service commemorated famous American authors in 1940 with the American Author’s Series of postal stamps. One of these stamps depicted Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic “Little Women.” Alcott wrote a great many books during her lifetime. “Hospital Sketches,” published in 1863, was based on her experiences as a nurse in Washington, DC, during the Civil War. Although Alcott’s nursing career was not a long one (she contracted typhoid fever and had to return home after only a few months), her book alerted many women to the great need that existed in military hospitals for volunteer nurses, medicines, food, bandages and blankets. Women responded by offering their services and collecting the necessary supplies, thus alleviating some of the worst needs.

The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, was honored for her military service in 1948 with the issuance of a red three-cent postage stamp. Clara Barton first became famous for her work as a nurse on the Civil War battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg and Richmond. Barton believed that her most significant contributions to the war effort were as an administrator, collecting and dispensing vast amounts of medical supplies to Army hospitals. In 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Clara Barton traveled to Cuba aboard a Red Cross ship and nursed American soldiers felled by tropical diseases.

In the years directly following World War II, the Postal Service issued a series of stamps commemorating the efforts of the US Armed Services during the war. In 1952, the president of a stamp club, Louis Tosti, began a campaign for a commemorative stamp featuring military women. He wrote letters to the Department of Defense and the Postal Service saying, “While many stamps have been issued by our government commemorating the various armed services, there was no indication that these issues included or gave credit to the women who served so unselfishly.”

Initially, the Postal Service rejected Tosti’s suggestion. He persisted with his case, however, writing to numerous congressmen, senators, and even President Harry Truman. Tosti’s idea eventually came to the attention of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve, Mrs. Anna Rosenberg. She was involved in the Department of Defense’s campaign to recruit additional numbers of women into the armed forces where their services were desperately needed during the Korean War. Mrs. Rosenberg wrote to President Truman regarding the proposed stamp, saying, “As you know, the Department of Defense is making an intensive effort to more than double the number of women serving in the armed services. I feel that the national recognition accorded by the issuance of such a stamp at this time would be of great value.”

The President agreed with her, stating that although the Postal Service received thousands of ideas for stamps, he personally believed that this particular idea was a winner. He instructed the Postmaster General to speak with Mrs. Rosenberg about the proposed stamp. Within a month, the Postal Service announced that a stamp honoring servicewomen would be released later that year.

On September 11, 1952, the US Postal Service issued a deep blue three-cent commemorative stamp entitled “Women In Our Armed Services.” The stamp featured four uniformed women representing the women of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force (not the Coast Guard). The Defense Department introduced the stamp to the American public at a series of recruitment rallies meant to inform young women and their parents about the career opportunities available in the armed forces.

In 1954, the Postal Service commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by issuing a three-cent stamp depicting Army Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Native American woman, Sacajawea, landing on the banks of the Missouri River. Sacajawea was a Shoshone woman who accompanied the explorers on their famous 1804 expedition to map the land west of the Missouri River. Although Sacajawea has been remembered as a guide for the expedition, she actually served as an interpreter for members of the expedition unfamiliar with Native American languages. “Bird Woman’s” service is described in the journals kept by Lewis and Clark during the expedition.

In 1995, Sacajawea was honored with her own stamp when the Postal Service issued a set of twenty full color commemorative stamps entitled “Legends of the West.” Each of the stamps in the series was worth twenty-nine cents.

The 25th anniversary of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was commemorated in 1968 with a five-cent postcard. There were women Marines in WWI, but the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established during World War II, after all the other military services had already formed temporary women’s components. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 gave the services the authority to establish permanent women’s components,with the stipulation that they could comprise no more than two percent of each service. By 1963, the Marine Corps had 2,700 women on active duty.

In 1974, the Postal Service issued an eighteen-cent stamp in honor of Dr. ElizabethBlackwell, remembered as the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She also worked with the War Department to select and train nurses for wartime hospital work during the Civil War. When the war started, Blackwell was practicing medicine in New York City. She realized that the Union Army would soon be in desperate need of medical supplies and organized over a thousand local women into a volunteer organization named the Women’s Central Association of Relief to collect and distribute medical supplies. She also set up and taught a training course for prospective nurses.

As the country was gearing up for the big bicentennial celebration in 1976, the Postal Service issued a set of four commemorative stamps entitled “Contributors To The Cause,” which honored four “unheralded” heroes and heroines of the Revolutionary War. One of these was Sybil Ludington, known to historians as “the female Paul Revere.

Sybil’s ride took place in 1777, when word reached the Ludington’s Connecticut home that the British were attacking the town of Danbury where the militia had stored much of their ammunition. Colonel Ludington, Sybil’s father, needed to get the word to his scattered militiamen that they were needed immediately. Because her father needed to remain on site to direct the incoming militia, Sybil volunteered to carry the order for muster around the countryside. She traveled forty miles on horseback across the countryside that night—farther than the more famous Paul Revere! Sybil’s mission was a success, for Colonel Ludington’s militia helped to prevent the British from reaching the town of Danbury. A statue commemorating Sybil’s ride stands today in the town of Carmel, New York.

In 1976, the Postal Service issued a full color thirteen-cent stamp commemorating Clara Maass. Maass served as an Army contract nurse in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and later in the Philippines. After the war, Clara returned to Cuba as a civilian nurse helping victims of yellow fever. In 1901, she volunteered to take part in a medical experiment in which scientists were trying to develop a way to immunize people against yellow fever. Clara allowed herself to be bitten by an infected mosquito and died from the fever ten days later.

Two years later, the Postal Service issued the first stamp in a series commemorating black heritage. The stamp pictured Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who became famous before the Civil War for helping other slaves escape their lives in the South via the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Tubman received authorization from Major General David Hunter, the Union Army’s Commander of the Department of the South, to act as a spy and scout for the Union Army, which had recently captured the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. Hunter’s orders gave Tubman permission to travel aboard military transports. Tubman was able to pass unsuspected through Confederate lines, and acted as a liaison between Union troops and recently freed black slaves. She organized some particularly brave freedmen into an informal intelligence service which provided valuable tactical information to the Union Army. Harriet Tubman also worked as a nurse in military hospitals along the Carolina coast. After the war, she made her home in Auburn, New York. Stamp collectors now prize the thirteen-cent multi-colored stamp commemorating her life.

The Postal Service issued a black-and-white one-cent stamp featuring Dorothea Dix in 1982. Dix is best known for her groundbreaking work with the mentally ill. Between 1841 and 1855, she single-handedly pushed through state legislatures a number of laws which improved the conditions under which the mentally ill were confined. When the Civil War broke out, the Army Medical Department realized that they needed the help of civilian women as nurses. Military leaders searched for a well-respected female public figure to take charge of civilian women working as contract nurses. Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Female Nurses in the Army of the United States in June of 1861. She was responsible for recruiting and training nurses to work for the Army. Anxious that the women be “above reproach,” she accepted only “plain looking women over thirty.” This approach, she believed, would minimize the romantic problems which she, the Army, and portions of the American public feared would be inevitable if young women were allowed to nurse young men. Dix served as superintendent until the end of the war and then continued her campaign to alleviate the conditions of the mentally ill.

Later that same year, the Postal Service issued a full-color, twenty-cent stamp commemorating Civil War physician Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the sole woman to have received the Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker obtained her medical degree from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Walker volunteered her services as a physician to the Army but was rejected because she was a woman. She then volunteered as a nurse and worked in an unofficial capacity treating wounded soldiers at Union Army Headquarters during the battle of Fredericksburg. She was finally appointed to the position of Army contract surgeon in 1863. Going into the field, she moved frequently between Union and Confederate lines, treating sick and wounded soldiers as well as civilians. She also carried packets of letters and dispatches across enemy lines to the Union Army. In April 1864, Dr. Walker was captured by the Confederates and held in a military prison in Richmond, Virginia, until August, when she was exchanged, along with a group of Union officers, for a group of Confederate officers.

President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor for her work in the field and in military hospitals. When the criteria for receiving the Medal of Honor were revised by the War Department in 1916, Dr. Walker’s medal was one of 911 revoked because new standards defined the criteria for receipt of the medal as “distinguished conduct involving actual conflict with the enemy.” Dr. Walker refused to return her medal, however, and wore it until her death in 1919. President Carter officially reinstated Dr. Walker’s medal in 1977.

Mary McCleod Bethune, a famous educator and civil rights activist, was commemorated by the Postal Service in 1985. Bethune, a New Deal political appointee and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, pressured Army leaders during World War II to allow black women into the Women’s Army Corps. She then personally “hand-picked” many of the 40 black women accepted into the first WAAC Officer Candidate Class. An unofficial advisor to the WAC throughout the war, she encouraged WAC leaders to treat black and white women equally and to integrate the Corps as much as possible, even though the military services were still officially segregated.

In 1995, the Postal Service issued a set of 20 full color stamps. The “Civil War” series featured three women involved in the war effort: Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, and Phoebe Pember. The contributions of Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman have been discussed above. Phoebe Yates Levy Pember served as the Superintendent of a Confederate Army hospital in Richmond, Virginia, during the war. The Chimborazo Army Hospital was the largest military hospital in the world, and supply shortages caused Pember and other care givers great difficulties. More than 15,000 troops were treated at Chimborazo during the war. Mrs. Pember persevered throughout the war, serving bravely amidst increasingly difficult conditions.

In 1996, the Postal Service issued a multi-colored stamp worth fifty cents commemorating the accomplishments of “Pioneer Pilot,” Jacqueline Cochran. Cochran was a well-known, award-winning “Aviatrix” prior to World War II. When the war started, she approached the Army Air Forces with a solution to their “manpower” problem. She proposed forming a unit of women pilots to perform domestic flying duties and to free up male pilots for combat duty. Eventually, the Army organized the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, with Cochran as the director. The WASP were civilians working for the Army. Over one thousand WASP flew military aircraft in the United States as test pilots, ferry pilots, and antiaircraft artillery trainers. After the war, Jackie Cochran went on to become the first woman jet pilot to break the sound barrier.

On October 18, 1997, the Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating “Women In Military Service.” The dedication of the stamp was timed to coincide with the October 18th Dedication of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. The Women’s Memorial is the first national memorial in the United States to honor all the women who have defended the country throughout history. Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon proclaimed, “they [the stamps] will serve as a reminder of the immeasurable contribution American women in military service have made and continue to make to the cause of protecting the freedom that we enjoy.”

The stamp features five women dressed in uniforms representing the five military services. The wording “Women In Military Service” appears in white on a blue background at the top of the stamp with five white stars beneath the phrase. The five services are printed across the bottom of the stamp in black, with each service separated by a black star. Thirty-seven million of these thirty-two cent postage stamps were printed. As of this year, they are no longer on sale at post offices.

The Women In Military Service For America Memorial commemorates all those women who have served in and with the US Armed Forces from the creation of this nation to the present day. Please help us tell the full story of their service by registering any women you might know who have served in or with the United States military. If you have any questions about the Memorial or the registration process, please call us at 800-222-2294.