For the first time in the nation, a state National Guard — Maryland’s — is led by a command staff of all women. As of last fall, the top four leaders in the state’s National Guard are all women — three of them African American — and all mothers.
The country has come a long way since the mid-1950s, when women were first allowed to join the National Guard (but only then, as medical officers). It would take four more decades for a woman to rise to the level of a state adjutant general, the top commander of a state’s military forces.
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 L. Birckhead took over as assistant adjutant general for Army, and in August, Brig. Gen. April Vogel began serving as assistant adjutant general for Air. Then, in December, Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa D. Wilson became senior enlisted adviser for Maryland’s National Guard.
The female-powered staff was, in many ways, entirely unintentional, Singh said. When the positions opened up, Singh by no means was 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 so 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. It was just over three years ago that 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 even in Maryland, 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.
These female leaders have also been tested in ways many of their male counterparts haven’t.
Growing up in Frederick County, Md., Singh ran away from home as a teenager after being sexually abused by a relative, she said. She was homeless and dropped out of high school but went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and multiple master’s degrees. Over 30 years in the military, she served in Kosovo and Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star. As a civilian, she also served as a managing director for consulting firm Accenture.
In college, during Birckhead’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) training at Hampton University, she said, a professor began making inappropriate advances toward her, asking her to redo some work alone with him at night. Birckhead filed a harassment claim, and the professor was removed from the position, she said.
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:
Both women ended up far exceeding their goals. When Wilson ended up being 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.
Having women at the helm of the National Guard has proved essential, not only to recruiting and elevating women, but also to retaining women — particularly mothers, said Vogel, who is also an Air National Guard adviser to the secretary of the Air Force.
As mothers, Vogel and the other female leaders said they can empathize with soldiers seeking advice for balancing motherhood with their military careers.
“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 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.”