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Women's History Month

SAF/PA 2009 Air Force Public Affairs

Women's History Month, 2009

"It was said long ago by a visitor to America - Alexis de Tocqueville - that the American woman thinks for herself, speaks with freedom and acts on her own impulse. I would add that she also chooses to defend freedom - her own and that of others," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a 2007 speech. 

Deborah Sampson changed her name to Robert Shurtlief to fight in the Revolutionary War and was wounded twice. Elizabeth Newcom enlisted as Bill Newcom to serve in the Mexican American War. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted as Private Lyons Wakeman to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War.

They are among the more than 2.5 million women who have served in the U.S. military since the American Revolution, contributing to the nation's security and setting examples of courage, service and commitment to freedom.

Women serving in the U.S. military have come a long way since the years of World War II, when American women began serving more formally in our country's military.

During the 1940s, women began integrating themselves into the armed services when the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service were founded, allowing women to serve in a military manner. The WACC and WAVES allowed women to contribute to the fight, mostly in a medical capacity. It was not until 1973, when the draft for the Vietnam War ended, that women were allowed to fall into the ranks alongside men. Today, more than 229,000 women serve on active duty.
This month, we salute those who have and continue to serve this great nation, especially the brave women who have and continue to serve and lead in the Air Force.

For our women Airmen, it began with the women in the Army Air Force. They served with distinction, replacing men who could be reassigned to combat and other vital duties. The Women's Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, was created in May of 1942. Its top priority was to serve at Aircraft Warning Service stations. In the spring of 1943, WAACs became the Women's Army Corps, or WAC. These women were assigned jobs that ranged from clerical and administrative duties to medical specialists and aircraft mechanics. Some commanders were reluctant to accept women into their units, but the demand for them was too great.

In September of 1942, the Army Air Force created the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and appointed Nancy Love its first commander. She recruited highly skilled and experienced female pilots who flew noncombat missions, ferrying planes between factories and AAF installations. While WAFS was being organized, the Army Air Force appointed Jacqueline Cochran as director of women's flying training. Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1993. At her school at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, she trained 232 women before it ceased operations. Eventually, more than 1,000 women completed flight training. As the ranks of women pilots serving the AAF swelled, the value of their contribution began to be recognized, and the Air Force took steps to militarize them. As a first step, they renamed the WAFS unit to Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. 

In all, 1,074 women graduated from this training and earned the WASP title -- a title that carried considerably less weight in those days then it does now. 
During the war, WASP flew operational flights that exceeded 60 million miles of ferrying aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation and military bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulating strafing missions and transporting cargo. Between September of 1942 and December of 1944, more than 50 percent of the ferrying of high-speed pursuit aircraft in the continental United States was carried out by WASP. The women also flew all 77 aircraft in the Army Air Force arsenal, either in training or while in service. 

Few people know these statistics; fewer still understand how important the WASP were to the military at that time. Still, the WASP program showed the world that women could sit in the cockpit and fly just as well as their male counterparts, war or no war. And in a career in which the door typically was slammed shut on women, a crack had suddenly appeared. The WASP program had opened the eyes and hearts of people across the country, and women everywhere began idolizing the WASP and looking to them as heroes.

These women, the WASP and the members of the WAFS, considered record-setters and innovators, also are known as mentors, opening the doors of opportunity to other women. 

Best known as "the top WAF," the director of Women in the Air Force officers, Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holme, enlisted in the Army during World War II and served as a truck driver in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. She left active duty after the war but was recalled during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. She was commissioned in the newly created U.S. Air Force. During her 33-year career, she achieved many firsts - she was the first woman to attend the Air Command and Staff College, the first woman in the Air Force to achieve brigadier general in 1971, and the first woman in any military branch to wear two stars when she was promoted to major general in 1973. She continues to serve as a WAF supporter and as a mentor to the thousands of women who serve today. 

Though there was pushback to having women in the military after World War II, in 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, making women permanent members of the Regular and Reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Marines and newly created Air Force.
Though the Women in the Air Force, or WAF, and the WASP were eventually disbanded, these pioneers led the way for women like Sheila Widnall, our first female secretary of the Air Force in 1993; Captain Martha McSally, our first female to fly combat missions in 1995; Colonel Eileen Collins, our first female space shuttle commander; and Major Nicole Malachowski, the Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron's first female pilot, flying at the Number 3, right wing position. 

When Colonel Collins first flew the space shuttle in 1995, she also became the first astronaut to fly the space shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch maneuver. Encyclopedia Britannica recognizes her as one of the top 300 women in history. The women who served in the WAFs and WASP led the way for pioneer women such as Colonel Collins. 

Women serve in almost every capacity in the armed forces, including in combat zones on land, at sea and in the skies. More than 90,000 women have served as fighter pilots, medics, military police and in other positions since the start of the war on terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, nearly 16,000 women are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and related areas.

Though it has become common to see women performing almost every job in the Air Force, the Air Force serves as an example to the rest of world because it offers women and men the same training and opportunities. It's based on the performance success of the individual, not the gender of the member. The Air Force's ability to fully leverage the talents and dedication of both men and women is a major accomplishment.

Regardless of the role gender, race or religion might play in society at large, when you come in the Air Force, you are judged and promoted based on your hard work and your ability to accomplish the mission.

Women serving in all armed forces have fought for equality and continue to break barriers on the battlefield. We've had female Airmen come home from the current wars with Purple Hearts, Air Medals and more for their bravery. Some have returned in flag-draped caskets.

We have Capt. Allison Black, the first woman recipient of the Combat Action Medal; retired Chief Master Sergeant Dorothy Holmes, the first woman to retire with 30 years of service; Technical Sergeant Kathy Shaw, the first woman enlisted tactical combat convoy commander; Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson, the first female sniper school graduate; and many others who serve in various vital roles today.

It's important to remember those who came before, the challenges they faced and the barriers they broke. It's important to salute those who continue to break barriers and take on challenges.

Women's History Month spotlights the efforts of these strong women throughout history. It highlights how it all began for women's roles in the armed forces, as far back as the Revolutionary War, when they had to disguise themselves as men to serve. It salutes the women who have overcome prejudices and stereotyping to become pioneers like those who served in the WAF and as WASP, our first female pilots. Women's History Month continues to salute the women who serve today and tomorrow, those who fight in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and more. I salute you.