Women: pioneering in the past, pioneering today

Noncommissioned Officer Leadership school 71-3L, with Women in the Air Force, or WAFs,  and staff at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Tenn. Women were accepted on an equal basis with men in 1976, and the WAF program ended. NCO leadership school was the precursor to today's Air Force Airman leadership school.(U.S. Air National Guard photo)

Noncommissioned Officer Leadership school 71-3L, with Women in the Air Force, or WAFs, and staff at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Tenn. Women were accepted on an equal basis with men in 1976, and the WAF program ended. NCO leadership school was the precursor to today's Air Force Airman leadership school.(U.S. Air National Guard photo)

Military training instructors speak with female veterans, known as  Women in the Air Force, a term for women who joined the Air Force between 1949 and 1976, during the Air Force Basic Military Training graduation parade Oct. 7, 2016, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland’s parade grounds. JBSA-Lackland hosted a reunion of the WAF members and provided the veterans a tour of the base. WAF was founded in 1948 out of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, which enabled tens of thousands of female service members to find jobs in the Air Force. In 1976 women were accepted into the service on an equal basis with men.

Military training instructors speak with female veterans, known as Women in the Air Force, a term for women who joined the Air Force between 1949 and 1976, during the Air Force Basic Military Training graduation parade Oct. 7, 2016, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland’s parade grounds. JBSA-Lackland hosted a reunion of the WAF members and provided the veterans a tour of the base. WAF was founded in 1948 out of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, which enabled tens of thousands of female service members to find jobs in the Air Force. In 1976 women were accepted into the service on an equal basis with men.

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --

The U.S. Congress designated the month of March as Women’s History Month in 1987 to commemorate the role of women in American history. 

“The purpose of women’s history month is to pay homage to the ladies who came before us and educate everyone about the past and were we have come, and highlight where we are trying to go in the future,” said Capt. Janay savoy, 332nd Training Squadron academics operations officer.

Throughout the years women have contributed to the armed forces and war efforts since this country’s beginnings. Some fulfilled support roles like nurses, while others volunteered for combat roles Deborah Samson Gannett, from Plymouth, Mass., who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in 1782 during the Revolution War.

 “Women have a special place in history … and have made important contributions to our nation security,” said Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, 502nd Air Base Wing and Joint Base San Antonio commander. “(They) made it possible for what we can do today and influenced the future of our Air Force.”

The U.S. Army was the first to recognize the potential contributions women could provide in the mid-1900s and officially utilized their skillsets in support of the war efforts.

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps

During World War I, women worked overseas as communication specialists and dietitians without the official status attached to those positions. Women had to obtain their own food and quarters. They received no legal protection, no medical care and were not entitled to benefits or pensions.

Women were able to officially serve in military positions other than nurses in 1941 with the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  WAAC was established during World War II to work hand-in-hand with the Army. Women were provided food, uniforms, living quarters, pay and medical care. Unfortunately, a woman’s pay was less than what a man received and lacked most of the benefits granted to Army soldiers.

More than 150,000 woman served during the war in a wide range of support roles. Initially jobs such as lavatory technicians, file clerks, typists, stenographers, and motor pool drives were given to women. Gradually, the Army discovered an increasing number of positions women were capable of fulfilling.

The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), which was formed in 1941 from the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC),  received about 40 percent of all WAACs and assigned them as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators, sheet metal repair workers, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, control tower operators and more.

By January 1950, only 50 percent of WAACs in the Army held traditional positions.

In 1943, the Army and Congress converted WAAC into the Women’s Army Corps, which became part of the Army instead of serving with the Army. Women received pay and privileges equal to that accorded to men. The WACs, unlike WAACs, were sent overseas and by Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, there were approximately 7,600 WACs throughout the European theater. WACs were also sent to the Southwest Pacific Area and the China-Burma-India theater.

The Army acknowledged a need for the skills women could provide and requested Congress to established WAC as a permanent part of the regular Army, which was approved in 1948.

The Women's Armed Services Integration Act, enacted June 12, 1948, allowed women to join the any branch of the military, to include the Air Force which became a separate military service Sept. 17, 1947.

Esther Blake, who enlisted in WAC in 1944, enlisted into the U.S. Air Force on the first hour of the first day women were authorized, becoming the first female Airman.

The first recruits, including Blake, reported to then-Lackland Air Force Base, Texasx which was later renamed to JBSA-Lackland.

Women Airforce Service Pilots

During the same time period as WAAC and WAC, the USAAF created two female flying units: Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). These two units, which were formed in 1942, were composed of civilian women who flew stateside assignments while male pilots served overseas.

Nancy Love, a member of the Massachusetts Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, was instrumental in the creation of WAFS and became the unit’s director. Jacqueline Cochran, who would become the first woman to exceed the sound barrier in 1953, founded the WFTD. In 1943, the units merged to become Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, with Cochran at the helm.

In the beginning, 28 experienced pilots volunteered to do the ferrying jobs. Between November 1942 and December 1944, 1,074 more were trained to fly. The WASP flew every aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. In addition, they towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and non-flying personnel, and flight-tested repaired aircrafts before the men were allowed to fly them again. For more than two years, the WASP went on to perform a wide variety of aviation-related jobs and to serve at more than 120 bases around the country.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that finally granted military status to the WASP, now numbering 1,102.

Pioneering women: then and today

“It is great to highlight how strong women have been and what they have overcame, like not being able to vote,” said Savory. “(They) broke down barriers, gender stereotypes, sexism … and showing that women can do anything.”

“There are lots of inspiring women,” Pringle said. “Sometime you view them from afar and sometimes you get to know them personally.”

There are three Airmen in particular who have inspired Pringle throughout her career. The first is Katherine Stinson, who was the 4th woman to earn her pilot’s license in the United States, and became a stunt pilot. She then became first woman in the world to perform a loop-the-loop.

“She did amazing things to further women’s abilities to becoming pilots today,” Pringle said. “Being a stunt flyer in the early 1900s – that’s incredible. She took the bull by the horns and made her own destiny.”

The second role model for Pringle is Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught.  Not only was she the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit, but she was also the first to reach the rank of brigadier general from the comptroller field.

The third Airman is someone Pringle knows personally, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, who was the first female four star general in the Air Force.

“She is a really great all-around leader,” Pringle explained. “She made good decisions and took care of her people.”

In addition into those three pioneers, Pringle regularly meets motivational and admirable women.

“There are lots of women around us who are all inspiring if you just take the time to meet them,” Pringle said. “As I go around JBSA, I meet a lot of phenomenal Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines … and I really care about meeting them because they are the future.”

Both Master Sgt. Enden Harrington, 326th TRS instructor supervisor, and Savoy both agree that they are inspired by the women around them.

Savory cited Pringle as one such person who she admires “for her confidence, decision-making skills and not being embarrassed” to ask for information.

“There are so many women who do great things … and are making history,” Harrington added.

“Women are still breaking barriers,” Savory elaborated. “We now have women in combat and that is a great feat. Maybe the next thing (we will achieve) will be presidency.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, JBSA is hosting a luncheon from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 24, at the JBSA-Lackland Gateway Club. The theme will be “Our History is our strength: Past, Present, Future” and will be reflected with the three guest speakers. Representing the past will be retired U.S. Marine Maj. Queta L. Marquez while U.S. Air Force Col. Rachel Lefebvre, 59 Medical Operations Group commander, will represent the present. An international military student from Tunisia, Lt. Noura Abid, will be speaking in regards to the future.  

(Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History and National WASP WWII Museum)