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Mark Cantrell is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.
In August 2015, Army Capt. Kristen Griest and Army 1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first women to earn the prestigious Ranger decoration. Though they are two of the recent beneficiaries of policy changes that are changing the face of women's military service, women have been serving in the military since the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In recognition of Women's History Month, here is a look back at some milestones for female servicemembers.
Into the fray
On Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Army Nurse Corps Lt. Annie G. Fox was on duty as chief nurse at Hickam Field, Hawaii, when Japanese fighters and bombers attacked. As the battle raged, Fox remained on duty, coolly and efficiently tending to the wounded, teaching volunteers to make dressings, and administering anesthesia. Her Purple Heart citation- the first for any woman in the military - noted "her fine example of calmness, courage, and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact.” (At the time, being wounded was not a requirement for receiving the medal.)
Although Fox was a lieutenant, she and her fellow nurses were not fully commissioned and didn't receive the same pay and benefits as their male colleagues. Col. Florence Blanchfield, who became supervisor of the Army Nurse Corps in 1943, aimed to change that, and her advocacy for parity in rank and pay was legendary. Due in large part to her efforts, the Army-Navy Nurse Act was passed in 1947, giving nurses the same benefits as other officers and making Blanchfield the first female commissioned officer in the armed forces.
Even bigger news came in 1948, when President Harry Truman signed into law the Women's Armed Services Integration Act after a long, hard-fought battle by Blanchfield and other advocates. Although women previously had served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC); Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a unit of the Navy Reserve; Marine Corps Women's Reserve; and Coast Guard Women's Reserve (SPAR) in non-nursing capacities, the legislation that had created the groups called for their service only "for the duration of the emergency." Passage of the act meant women now could enjoy the same permanent military status as men, although their numbers were limited to just 2 percent in each branch and they could be discharged at any time without cause.
Filling the ranks
According to the Women in Military Service for America Foundation, however, "the 1950s became a decade of survival in an unwelcome environment for women in the armed forces." By the end of the Korean War, the number of women in the services actually had declined from what it had been at the beginning. The 1960s weren't much better, although the growing feminist movement began to shape public opinion on women's rights.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 90-130, which removed the 2-percent cap on the number of women in each service and opened advanced ranks to them as well. Although it advocated the bill, the House Armed Services Committee released a statement declaring there would never be complete equality for women in the services. Indeed, about 90 percent of the women who served in Southeast Asia were nurses, who, although not allowed to serve in combat, nevertheless sometimes died at the hands of the enemy just as their male comrades did.
Although the law wasn't perfect, it did allow a woman to become a general officer for the first time. Anna Mae Hayes, who had served as a nurse in Burma during World War II and later became chief of the Army Nurse Corps, was promoted to brigadier general June 11, 1970. Elizabeth P. Hoisington, director of the WAC, was awarded the same rank during the ceremony.
As the 1970s began, the lot of women in the military continued to improve only gradually, until passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 began to bring down barriers both in military and civilian life. In 1973, the Coast Guard saw its first female recruits, when Yeoman 1st Class Wanda May Parr and Yeoman 2nd Class Margaret A. Blackman joined the service. That year, former World War II SPAR Alice T. Jefferson became the first female commissioned officer in the regular Coast Guard, with the rank of chief warrant officer.
With the end of the draft, more personnel were needed, and DoD began to realize ignoring half the country's population wasn't helping the shortage. In short order, the Navy opened pilot training to women, producing in 1974 the first female naval aviator, Lt. Cdr. Barbara Allen Rainey. Rainey also was the first woman to qualify as a jet pilot. (Tragically, she was killed in a crash while teaching touch-and-go landings in a T-34C Mentor in 1982.)
The 1980s saw the first female military school graduates, and the number of women in the services began to swell. By then, attitudes toward military women had begun to change drastically, with then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger saying in a memo:
Qualified women are essential to obtaining the numbers of qualified people required to maintain the readiness of our forces. ... While we have made progress, some institutional barriers still exist. ... This Department must aggressively break down those remaining barriers that prevent us from making the fullest use of the capabilities of women in providing for our national defense.
One of those qualified women was Heather Wilson, who joined the Air Force at the age of 17. Wilson, whose heritage includes a grandfather who flew for the Royal Air Force in World War I, is an Oxford scholar with a master's degree and doctorate in international relations who served on the National Security Council for three years. As a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, she was instrumental in helping to repeal a law forbidding women from flying in combat. When her congressional representative fell ill in 1998, she was encouraged to run for his seat. She won, and became the first female veteran elected to a full term in Congress. "I went from being a cabinet secretary with a very nice life in New Mexico in February to a member of Congress in June. It happened very quickly," says Wilson.
Third-generation military aviator Capt. Katie Higgins, USMC, knew exactly what she wanted to do after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 2008: fly the C-130 Hercules. After accumulating more than 400 combat hours over Afghanistan and other hot spots in the aircraft, she was approached by a member of the Navy's elite Blue Angels demonstration team who thought she should try out for the unit. With her experience flying the C-130, she was tapped to pilot the team's iconic transport, nicknamed "Fat Albert," becoming the first female Blue Angel in 2015.
One of the favorite parts of her job is correcting misperceptions. "I've talked to people who had no idea women could be pilots, let alone Blue Angels pilots," says Higgins. "I tell both boys and girls that if this is a job you're interested in, you can do it."
Above and beyond
Col. Eileen Collins, USAF (Ret), echoes Higgins' message. As a child, Collins used to watch gliders soar over her home in Elmira, N.Y., and dreamed of someday becoming a pilot. In fourth grade, she read an article about Gemini astronauts and became fascinated with the space program. She enlisted in the Air Force and became a C-141 transport pilot, helping rescue American students held hostage in Grenada in 1983. She applied to test pilot school and NASA at the same time and was accepted into the astronaut program in 1990, just after graduating as a test pilot.
In 1995, she became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, flying Discovery to the Soviet space station Mir. In 1993, she became the shuttle program's first female commander on a mission to the International Space Station. Now retired, Collins misses her flying days but enjoys inspiring young girls and women who are interested in aviation and space. "I never told anyone I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young," says Collins, "because I was sure they'd tell me I couldn't do it. I want young women to know there are plenty of opportunities out there in the military, aviation, and space."
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