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A Man’s World? Women in the Air Force have pushed the boundaries of perceived capabilities and roles

Women in the Air Force

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircrew from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron walk to their aircraft on March Air Reserve Base, Calif. on Dec. 18, 2017. The KC-135 aircrew consisted of all female crew members to celebrate Elinor Otto, better known as Rosie the Riveter, as she had her first C-17 Globemaster III flight. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Eric Harris / Released)

Women's Air Force Service Pilots

World War II required the first use of women performing a “man’s job” as aircraft pilots. During the Second World War, 1,102 Women’s Air Force Service Pilots ferried and flew every type of military aircraft and logged more than 60 million miles across the United States.

Since the first immigrants landed on what would become American soil, this country has relied on women in times of need. From the establishment of the colonies through the current war on terror, women have successfully filled not only their traditional gender roles but also those prescribed to men when required.

In wartime, women served as nurses, spies and, on rare occasions, disguised as men in order to fight.

World War I marked the first time women were hired to perform non-nursing jobs for the military, though only as civilian contractors. World War II required the first use of women performing a “man’s job” as aircraft pilots. During the Second World War, 1,102 Women’s Air Force Service Pilots ferried and flew every type of military aircraft and logged more than 60 million miles across the United States.

The integration of women into a traditional, male-dominated culture has not been a gradual process, but instead progress has been the by-product of a cycle in which external crisis necessitated a breakdown of the gendered status quo, and women rose to meet the challenge.

June 12, 2018, marks 70 years since the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed, establishing a permanent place for women in the regular and reserve Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The act’s primary purpose was to provide a means of mobilizing womanpower in the event of a sudden or large-scale war.

From that directive, the newly established Air Force created the Women in the Air Force, often referred to as the WAF, as a fully integrated entity instead of a separate corps as the other services had done.

The integration act was filled with stipulations concerning the use of women, such as personnel caps and the denial of spousal benefits. It also forbade women from having children or marrying while in the service as well as prohibiting women from wielding any command authority over men.

Geraldine Pratt May, a former Women’s Army Corp member, was selected as the first female Air Force colonel and director of the WAF on June 16, 1948, where she served until 1951.

When President Truman ordered U.S. air and naval forces into the Republic of Korea in June 1950, the newly created Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard were the only resources available to meet the challenge of a war on two fronts.

At the beginning of the Korean War, the WAF had about 4,000 women on active duty and 1,127 in the reserve. By the end, it had 6,000. Despite numerous requests for WAF personnel, the Air Force refused to assign women other than medical evacuation nurses to the combat zone, though later women were assigned to rear-echelon support bases in theater.

For the next decade, a relatively stable Cold War era military began placing more emphasis on WAF feminine responsibilities and roles, essentially duplicating civilian status and employment.

Despite pushing for expanded use and opportunities for women, WAF directors were careful not to rock the boat, understanding their tenuous position as well as the reality that focusing on quality over quantity of WAF personnel only seemed to reinforce the double standard.

As war in Southeast Asia appeared imminent a decade later, the Air Force had no intention of deploying women into theater. However, it did not take long before female nurses were needed to supplement manpower demands. Though many WAF members volunteered for duty in Vietnam, nearly all requests were denied or ignored.

Between 600 and 800 non-nursing women served in Southeast Asia, filling a variety of noncombat jobs including supply, aircraft maintenance, public affairs, administration and intelligence.

Meanwhile at home, the late 1960s and early 1970s were characterized by a growing women’s movement and a general reluctance of men to volunteer or serve in the military.

Jeanne Holm, the first female major general among any service, was an incredible influence on expanding roles and rights for women in the Air Force. During her tenure as WAF director, Holm pushed for major policy reforms. WAF strength more than doubled, and assignment opportunities greatly expanded.

Women were no longer automatically discharged for pregnancy, enlistment age and dependent benefits were made equal, and Public Law 90-130 in 1967 repealed rank and personnel caps on women.

The switch to an all-volunteer force in 1973 was a critical turning point for women in the Air Force. The WAF silently dissolved in 1976 as the Air Force opened pilot training and the Air Force Academy to women, and two years later women began training on Titan missile launch crews.

In spite of progress, by the early 1980s Air Force women still overwhelmingly filled traditional gendered jobs. In the absence of clear law or a congressional decision on combat exclusion, each service devised its own rules concerning the jobs women were allowed to perform. Despite designating entire classes of aircraft as “combat related,” the Air Force was pressured to open AWACS to women in 1982, the KC-10 in 1984, and an additional 1,645 positions aboard aircraft previously closed to women in 1986, including pilots and technicians on the RC-135 and EC-130.

As women demonstrated their capability in different types of aircraft and missions, technological innovation made it increasingly difficult to divide combat and noncombat flying missions.

Operation Urgent Fury in 1983, the raid on Libya in 1986 and Operation Just Cause in 1989 involved Air Force female pilots, navigators, boom operators and enlisted crew members aboard tankers and support aircraft in the combat zone.

Despite political efforts to expand the utilization of women, conservative military culture continued to defend the status quo. Women were often isolated and discouraged from female networking, making the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services the primary means for servicewomen to convey their concerns to the top levels. In response to increased pressure from DACOWITS, the Defense Department established a new policy referred to as the Risk Rule in 1988, making 97 percent of Air Force jobs theoretically open to women.

By 1990, women comprised 14 percent of the Air Force, 13 percent of reserve forces and 11 percent of all active-duty military personnel. Despite their expanded numbers, women’s roles in large-scale military operations remained unclear until more than 40,000 servicewomen deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991.

Though the majority of Air Force women who deployed in support of the war were active duty (7 percent of total Air Force), the highest proportion was in the Air Force Reserve (13 percent of the total force and 21.3 percent of Air Force Reserve officers).

Desert Storm exposed the American public to contradictions in military policies concerning women, proving they could not be kept safe simply by classifying jobs as combat or not. Dubbed the “Mommy War” by national media, women performed in almost every type of operation except direct combat.

Between 1992 and 1999, the Air Force Reserve was called to respond to regional conflicts, natural disasters and humanitarian crises all over the world. Women’s roles continued to be tested during these operations, although there seemed to be few questions left about what women could or could not do and the value they added to the Air Force mission.

DACOWITS again pushed for the repeal of combat exclusion statutes, arguing the services should be able to utilize all qualified personnel based on ability rather than gender.

In 1993, the secretary of defense opened combat aviation to women, including enlisted aircrew positions, and in 1994 the Risk Rule was replaced by the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, making women eligible for assignment to all positions for which they qualified, except for units below brigade level whose primary mission was to engage the enemy in direct combat.

By the turn of the century, 99 percent of all Air Force occupations were open to women.

Operation Enduring Freedom from 2001 to 2014 and Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003 to 2011 were the first large-scale mobilizations of troops since the Gulf War. The reality of an evolving mission and battlefield again placed women in the center of combat.

In recognition of this reality, the co-location policy was rescinded in 2012 and the DGCDAR in 2013. On January 1, 2016 Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter opened all combat jobs to women, making 4,099 previously closed Air Force jobs – 176 of those specific to the Reserve – open to women.

For the first time in U.S. military history, as long as they qualified and met specific standards, women were able to contribute to the mission with no barriers in their way.

The history of women in the military is filled with brave and relentless women who have sacrificed their reputation, livelihood or even life to push the boundaries of perceived female capabilities and roles.

It took time, circumstance, strong female leadership and ultimately the dedication of the women performing the mission to get where we are as a service today.

(Kester is an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the HQ AFRC History Office at Robins AFB, Georgia. Her sources for this article include Gerald Cantwell’s “Citizen Airmen: A History of the Air Force Reserve, 1946-1994," Jeanne Holm’s “Women in the Military: an Unfinished Revolution” and Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s “A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”)

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