Honoring Sharron Cohen: Paving Steps to Equality for the Armed Forces

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Rhonda Smith
  • Air University Public Affairs

In recognition of Military Spouse Appreciation Day, Maxwell Air Force Base Airmen honored Mrs. Sharron Cohen, formally Lt. Sharron Frontiero, for her role in securing equal spousal benefits and pay throughout the Department of Defense at an on-base ceremony May 6, 2022.

Airmen placed steps in front of the 42nd Medical Group, a metaphorical and literal representation of the chronological steps Mrs. Cohen took from 1969 to 1973 to forge a path for all servicewomen to receive the same entitlements that male service members automatically received. 

In the 1970s, Cohen sued the Secretary of Defense in Frontiero v. Richardson for the deprivation of due process for servicewomen and won her case in the Supreme Court, represented by her lawyers Joe Levin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

At the time, male military members automatically received increased housing allowance and medical benefits for their wives after marriage, whereas female military members had to prove their husbands depended on them for over one-half of their support to receive the same benefits.  Lt. Frontiero did not accept the policy as just and hired legal counsel to secure full benefits for her military spouse.

In recognition of her service, Col. Eries Mentzer, 42nd Air Base Wing Commander, presented Mrs. Sharron Cohen the Commander’s Outstanding Public Service Award.

“Sharron Cohen’s legacy represents what we instill in our Airmen every day – regardless of your pay or position, you can make a difference and better our Air Force,” said Mentzer. “All Airmen and Guardians deserve the Freedom to Serve.  Command Chief Lee Hoover and I hope these steps highlight the courageous path Lt. Frontiero bravely took to secure pay equality and inspire today’s service members to challenge the status quo in order to remove barriers to service so all Airmen, Guardians, and families can rise to their best as part of a fully integrated force.”

The event was led by Technical Sgt. Octaevia Hutcherson of the 42nd Medical Group with assistance from Dr. Mehmed Ali, Ms. Alexandra Aldridge and Ms. Roberta Berthelot from Air University Academic Services. Mrs. Cohen’s lawyer, Mr. Joseph Levin, attended the ceremony virtually and Lt. Gen. Mary F. O’Brien from the Department of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team provided remarks for the event.

“Sharron’s story illustrates how any one of us can play a role in fighting for gender equality,” said O’Brien. “These marble steps that commemorate her virtuous achievements are solid; but to be sure, following these steps is not insurmountable. Her act took personal bravery at a time in our history when she had little support, until she proactively reached to seek it.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond also provided congratulatory remarks for the ceremony.

“We must never forget the boldness of Airmen like Lieutenant Frontiero,” said Brown. “It is important to remember that you do not need rank or authority to drive change. Sharron was able to change federal policy as Lieutenant.”

"As a young lieutenant, she challenged the status quo of the Department of Defense because she believed military benefits should not be distributed differently based solely on gender. The Supreme Court agreed with her in a landmark case that advanced the cause of gender equality,’” said Raymond. “Sharon didn’t set out to be a hero, but she did prove the power one person can have when they stand up to injustice and say ‘this isn’t right’.”

The Frontiero vs. Richardson case was the first successful sex discrimination case filed against the federal government and set the precedent for future gender equity cases.

“I am very proud, honored and grateful to you all for doing this,” said Cohen. “My last visit to Maxwell two years ago, I served on a panel with eight other women, most of whom served in combat roles. Not only were the changes at the base over the last 50 years profound, but changes for the women and what they were doing were so huge. It surprised me that these women were given a chance to serve in these positions and they were being protected. That moment made me really proud to be a veteran and the little piece I contributed with the hard work that Joe Levin and Ruth Ginsburg did.”

Maxwell welcomes all Airmen, Guardians, and families to view the steps and continue Mrs. Cohen’s exceptionally legacy of removing barriers to service and accelerating the necessary change for better, more inclusive Air and Space Forces.