by Martha Lockwood
Air Force News Service
3/9/2013 - FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- 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
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.
Servicewomen who had joined the Reserves following World War II, were
involuntarily recalled to active duty as Women in the Air Force (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 (1953), 12,800 WAF officers and enlisted women were serving
worldwide, and in 1955, Air Force nurses experienced a moment of
turnabout when 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.
The Vietnam War (1965-75) numbers 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, it is more interesting to note the solid achievements
and the expanding role of women in the military that 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 MASH Units, in service clubs, in headquarters offices,
intelligence, and a in variety of personnel positions throughout
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.
Then, 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 (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, that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of
Air Force Lt. Sharon Frontiero and changed military life forever. The
Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the inequities in benefits for the
dependents of military women. Until then, military women with dependents
were not authorized housing, nor were their dependents eligible for the
benefits and privileges afforded the dependents of male military
members, such as medical, commissary and post exchange benefits.
By the end of the Vietnam War (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 (1976) when women were accepted
into the Air Force on an equal basis with men, women were laying a solid
groundwork for attaining leadership positions and equal opportunities.
It was that year--our country's bicentennial--more than 200 years since
women first served on the battlefield of the American Revolution as
nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs--that women were
admitted to the service academies.
After that, the sky was the limit. In 1976, the Air Force selected the
first woman reservist for the undergraduate pilot training program, and
the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) assigned the first woman
aircrew member to alert duty.
In 1980, the first women graduated from the service academies, and just
two years after that (1982) the Air Force selected the first woman
aviator for Test Pilot School.
Six Air Force women served as pilots, copilots and boom operators on the
KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that refueled F-111Fs during the raid on Libya
That year was 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 (1990-91) deployed 40,000 American military
women during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. And at
the end of that war, the Air Force Reserve selected its first woman
senior advisor and Congress repealed laws banning women from flying in
It wasn't until 1993 that women stood on the threshold of space. In that
year, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms (then Maj. Helms) a member of the first
class of the U. S. Air Force Academy ('80) to graduate women, became the
first American military woman in space as part of the Space Shuttle
By then, the Civil War had been over for 125 years and our nation had
seen, endured, and survived two World Wars, the riots of the 60s, the
war protests of the 70s, and the Space Shuttle Challenger setback of the
The best was yet to come.
(Martha Lockwood is the chief of Air Force Information Products for the Defense Media Activity)