By Martha Lockwood, www.af.mil
Defense Media Activity
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) - Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a three-part series commemorating Women’s History Month. This story deals with the contributions women made to the Air Force during the years following World War II up until shortly after the Gulf War.
Within the time span it took for women in television to transform from the female stereotypes portrayed on “I Love Lucy” to the more modern, late-century version found on “Murphy Brown,” women in the U.S. Air Force were making strides that far outpaced their Hollywood counterparts.
By the end of World War II, women were fully incorporated into the military, although still primarily limited to mostly clerical roles such as typists, clerks and mail sorters, and represented only about two percent of the force.
Less than a year after the Air Force became its own service, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, accepting women as a permanent part of the military. It was the beginning of the Women’s Air Force, and for the next 30 years would represent a separate, but equal part of the military.
During the Korean War (1950-53), the only Air Force women permitted to serve in the Korean battle zone were medical air evacuation nurses. Servicewomen who had joined the Reserves following World War II, were involuntarily recalled to active duty as Women in the Air Force (WAF). Together, with already in-service WAFs, the women carried out support roles at rear-echelon bases in Japan. They were air traffic controllers, weather observers, radar operators and photo interpreters. Nurses served stateside, and flight nurses served in the Korean theater.
By the end of the Korean War (1953), 12,800 WAF officers and enlisted women were serving
worldwide, and in 1955, Air Force nurses experienced a moment of turnabout when men were accepted into the Air Force Nurse Corps.
These events would prove to be a harbinger of women’s emerging equality in all aspects of military service. Yet, it would take two more decades and service in another war to achieve parity.
The Vietnam War (1965-75) numbers reveal a different story than the Korean War. American women military serving in Southeast Asia numbered 7,000, with 600 to 800 reported to be WAFs. However, although the numbers may vary, it is more interesting to note the solid achievements and the expanding role of women in the military that evolved during that time of intense service.
No longer thought of only as nurses or medical evacuation personnel, WAFs also served in a variety of support staff assignments, in hospitals, with MASH Units, in service clubs, in headquarters offices, intelligence, and a in variety of personnel positions throughout Southeast Asia.
With the 1967 repeal of the two-percent cap on the number of women serving, and the lifting of the restriction on the highest grade women could achieve, the first of many glass ceilings was shattered.
Then, in 1968 the passage of Public Law 90-130 allowed women to enlist in the Air National Guard, and on campuses in 1969, Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (AFROTC) opened to women.
Perhaps the most notable (to date) women’s accomplishment came in 1971 when Jeanne M. Holm was promoted to brigadier general. She was the first female airman to reach that rank. It was an achievement that would serve as inspiration for women throughout the WAFs for two years, until 1973, when she was promoted to major general.
It was that same year, 1973, that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Air Force Lt. Sharon Frontiero and changed military life forever. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the inequities in benefits for the dependents of military women. Until then, military women with dependents were not authorized housing, nor were their dependents eligible for the benefits and privileges afforded the dependents of male military members, such as medical, commissary and post exchange benefits.
By the end of the Vietnam War (1975) the Department of Defense had reversed policies and provided pregnant women with the option of electing discharge or remaining on active duty. Previous policies had required women to be discharged if they became pregnant or if they adopted a child.
By the conclusion of the WAF program (1976) when women were accepted into the Air Force on an equal basis with men, women were laying a solid groundwork for attaining leadership positions and equal opportunities.
It was that year–our country’s bicentennial–more than 200 years since women first served on the battlefield of the American Revolution as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs–that women were admitted to the service academies.
After that, the sky was the limit. In 1976, the Air Force selected the first woman reservist for the undergraduate pilot training program, and the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) assigned the first woman aircrew member to alert duty.
In 1980, the first women graduate from the service academies, and just two years after that (1982) the Air Force selects the first woman aviator for Test Pilot School.
Six Air Force women served as pilots, copilots and boom operators on the KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that refueled FB-111s during the raid on Libya in 1986.
That year was a banner year academically for women as, for the first time in history, the Air Force Academy’s top graduate is a woman.
The War in the Persian Gulf (1990-91) deployed 40,000 American military women during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. And at the end of that war, the Air Force Reserve selects its first woman senior advisor and Congress repeals laws banning women from flying in combat.
It wasn’t until 1993 that women stood on the threshold of space. In that year, Brig. Gen. Susan J. Helms (then Maj. Helms) a member of the first class of the U. S. Air Force Academy (’80) to graduate women, became the first American military woman in space as part of the Space Shuttle Endeavor team.
By then, the Civil War had been over for 125 years and our nation had seen, endured, and survived two World Wars, the riots of the 60s, the war protests of the 70s, and the Space Shuttle Challenger setback of the 80s.
The best was yet to come.
(Martha Lockwood is the chief of Air Force Information Products for the Defense Media Activity)