Women's roles evolved - Women make an impact on military history

  • Published
  • By Martha Lockwood
  • Defense Media Activity
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. Service women who had joined the Reserves following World War II were involuntarily recalled to active duty as Women in the Air Force, or 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 in 1953, 12,800 WAF officers and enlisted women were serving worldwide, and in 1955, 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.

Numbers from the Vietnam War, from 1965-75, 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, solid achievements and the expanding role of women in the military 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 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units, in service clubs, in headquarters offices, intelligence and in a 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.

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, or 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, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Air Force Lt. Sharon Frontiero and changed military life. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the inequities in benefits for the eligible family members of military women. Military women with eligible family members were authorized housing and other benefits and privileges afforded families of male military members, such as medical, commissary and post exchange benefits.

By the end of the Vietnam War in 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 in 1976, when women were accepted into the Air Force on an equal basis with men, women began attaining leadership positions and equal opportunities. It was that year women were admitted to the service academies.
After that, the sky was the limit.

In 1980, the first women graduated from the service academies, and just two years later, the Air Force selected the first woman aviator for Test Pilot School.

Six Air Force women served as pilots, co-pilots 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 also a banner year academically for women as, for the first time in history, the Air Force Academy's top graduate was a woman.

The War in the Persian Gulf, from 1990-91, deployed 40,000 American military women during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. And at the end of that war, Congress repealed laws banning women from flying in combat.

It wasn't until 1993 that a female Airman stood on the threshold of space, as Brig. Gen. Susan J. Helms became the first American military woman in space as part of the Space Shuttle Endeavor team.

Martha Lockwood is the chief of Air Force Information Products for the Defense Media Activity.