It wasn't until the Cold War, in the mid-1950s, that women were allowed to join the National Guard - as medical officers. It would take another four decades for a woman to rise to the level of a state adjutant general, the top commander of a state's military forces.
Now, for the first time in the nation, a state National Guard — Maryland's — is led by a command staff entirely composed of women. As of fall 2018, the top four leaders in the state's National Guard are all women — three of them African American — and all mothers.
Since 2015, Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh has served at the helm of Maryland's military, the first African American and first woman to hold the role of adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard.
In June, Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead took over as assistant adjutant general, Army, and in August, Brig. Gen. April Vogel began serving as assistant adjutant general, Air. Then, in December, Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa Wilson became senior enlisted adviser for Maryland's National Guard.
The all-female staffing was unintentional, Singh said. When the positions opened, Singh wasn't necessarily seeking an all-female leadership team — she simply wanted the most qualified candidates available, she said.
"I didn't even realize that it was going to line up this way," she said. "It's not like I engineered it for all of them to end up in these positions. It just to happened that these talented ones started rising to the top."
The elevation of women within Maryland's National Guard comes as women across the country continue to rise in the ranks of the military, taking on roles that were previously only filled by men.
In 2015, women were granted the right to serve in combat posts in the U.S. military. Since then, the first women have graduated from the Army's most physically challenging training, the Ranger School, and from the Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course. For the first time, a woman is leading an infantry platoon in the Marines. And in February, amid a long-running debate over whether women should be included in the draft, a federal judge ruled that a male-only draft is unconstitutional.
But the military continues to be a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. Before Birckhead was promoted to brigadier general, she was one of about 25 colonels in the Maryland Army National Guard — and she was the only woman.
"What I didn't want is to have a female leadership team that's not competent," Singh said. "They had to be competent — just as competent, if not more competent, than their peers."
These female leaders have also been tested in ways many of their male counterparts haven't.
Growing up in Frederick County, Singh ran away from home as a teenager after being sexually abused, she said. She was homeless and dropped out of high school but went on to receive a bachelor's degree and masters' degrees. Over 30 years in the military, she served in Kosovo and Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star. In her civilian capacity, she served as a managing director for consulting firm Accenture.
In college, during Birckhead's time with the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Hampton University, she said a professor of military science made inappropriate advances toward her, asking her to redo land navigation training alone with him at night. Birckhead filed a harassment claim, she said, and the professor was removed from the position.
Wilson recalled how, about 15 years ago, she struggled to get promoted to sergeant, which at that time required appearing before a board. "Every time I went, I was the only female," she said.
She appeared before the board twice and wasn't selected. "One time I went before the board that morning and won soldier of the year for the battalion, and later that day I went for a promotion and didn't get selected," she said.
Each of the women credited other female National Guard leaders for noticing their talent, helping elevate them, and for urging them to aim higher. Wilson recalled when, early in her career, she was promoted to private second class, and she watched as a female superior was promoted to staff sergeant. At the promotion ceremony, the staff sergeant told the first sergeant she wanted to someday reach his rank.
At that same promotion ceremony, as Wilson received her private-second-class pin, she told the first sergeant: "I want to get to where she gets."
Both women exceeded their goals. When Wilson was promoted to sergeant major, the other female leader was there to pin her at her ceremony.
"I started seeing talent in these particular individuals years and years ago," Singh said of her female leadership staff. "If I have a seat at the table, how can I be their champion to ensure that they're getting the opportunity?"
Having women at the helm of the National Guard has been essential for recruiting, elevating and retaining women, particularly mothers, said Vogel, who is an Air National Guard assistant to the secretary of the Air Force.
As fellow mothers, Vogel and the other female leaders said they can empathize with soldiers seeking advice for balancing motherhood with their military careers.
"It's nice to have somebody who's been there," Vogel said. "I can't tell you the number of young women who have asked to speak with me, and said . . . how did you handle this? What do you do when you're being questioned because you have to go home to take care of your kids?"
In the few months since the four women took the helm of Maryland's military, they have already noticed a shift in the leadership style.
"I definitely think that as women, we are a lot more detail-oriented. We like to get all of the details, we get meticulous into the processes," Wilson said. "We are a little more nurturing when it comes to the position or to the people."
But most of the time, the gender makeup of the command staff is far from their minds.
"When you see a male leadership team, you don't think anything of it," she said. "That's the point we need to get to, where it becomes the norm. And we're not quite there yet."