The military's highest glass ceiling was finally shattered today, as Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody became America's first female four-star general.
Dunwoody received her fourth star and the rank of general today during an emotional promotion ceremony held at the Pentagon and attended by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Command Commander Gen. David Petraeus.
The auditorium housing the ceremony was so crowded that three-star generals had to stand off to the sides because there were no seats left in the hall.
"We invited everyone but the fire marshal," Gates said jokingly during his remarks.
Gates praised Dunwoody's accomplishments and said, "History will, no doubt, take note of her achievement in breaking through this final brass ceiling to pin on a fourth star. But she would rather be known and remembered, first and foremost, as a U.S. Army soldier. "
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey recalled that when Dunwoody was commissioned as an officer in 1975, an Army survey of both male and female soldiers that year concluded that the best career path for women in the Army was to serve as cooks. He said her career has mirrored how the Army has evolved since then.
"Although it's taken a long time, probably longer than it should have, what's happening here today is something our entire Army can celebrate and take pride in," he said.
When Dunwoody received her stars, the auditorium erupted in loud, sustained cheers and applause.
Dunwoody said she never envisioned a day like today, not even in her "wildest dreams."
"Thirty-three years after I took the oath as a second lieutenant, I have to tell you this is not exactly how I envisioned my life unfolding," she said. "Even as a young kid, all I ever wanted to do was teach physical education and raise a family."
But she said the longer she stayed in the Army, the more she realized how her childhood dreams had become a reality. "I'm still sort of in the fitness business, and my family, there's nothing better than being part of a huge Army family that I've come to love so much."
"While I know I may be the first woman to achieve this honor, I know with certainty, I won't be the last," she said.
Dunwoody's Long Military History
Dunwoody's family has a long tradition of military service, including her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brother, sister, niece and husband. Both her father and great-grandfather served as one-star generals in the Army. In her remarks, she praised her 89-year-old father, Brig. Gen. Harold Dunwoody, as "my hero."
At the time of her nomination Dunwoody said in a statement, "I grew up in a family that didn't know what glass ceilings were." Her older sister was one of the Army's first helicopter pilots and her niece is a fighter pilot who has flown missions over Afghanistan.
Dunwoody is accustomed to making history as she has climbed up the ranks during her 33-year Army career. She was the first woman to be a battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division, and in 2000 she became the first woman to serve as a general at Fort Bragg.
Her climb up the ranks highlights the widening role that women play in the armed forces, but also their low numbers at the very top of the command structure.
Women make up 14 percent of the 1.4 million serving on active duty in the nation's military. And despite being excluded from units designed for direct combat, like infantry brigades, more than 100 women have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgent fights have put all military forces at risk for attack.
The ranks of female general officers throughout the armed forces has grown since 1970 when Anna Mae Hays became the first woman to attain the rank of general when promoted to brigadier general to become the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
Today, 57 women hold the rank of general or admiral; five of them are three-star generals. But their numbers at the very top remain low. Among the Army's 391 generals, 21 of them -- or about 5 percent -- are women. But only four serve above the one-star rank of brigadier general.
Dunwoody said that she has been "humbled" by the enormous attention and support her promotion has received and that she hopes to remain a role model for both men and women in the military.
"I've heard from moms and dads who see this promotion as a beacon of hope for their own daughters, and after affirmation that anything is possible through hard work and commitment."