The Defining Generation
Defining the Role of the Sexes
Women in Military Service
THE U.S. Army's "Soldier's Medal" while low in precedence, ranking below the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and even the Distinguished Flying Cross, is one of the most respected military medals. Awarded for heroism by those serving with the Army in any capacity that involves the voluntary risk of life under conditions other than those of conflict with an opposing armed force, it has been presented with less frequency than any other Valor award with the sole exception of the Medal of Honor. The refusal of an Army commander to award Karen Offutt the Soldier's Medal in 1970 because "we don't award them to women" is both tragic and telling.
Despite the fact that during the Vietnam War the U.S. Military was "color blind" and became perhaps the leader in equal opportunity regardless of race, it remained one of the most resistant sub-sets of American culture where equality for women was concerned. That gender bias was not only a traditional one based upon flawed stereotyping of women who wanted to serve their nation, it was based in statute. Even as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law granting equal opportunity in employment and prohibiting discriminatory actions against " any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," under United States Law:
§ No more than 2% of the total military force could be comprised of women.
§ Women given officers' commissions could comprise no more than 10% of the total number of women in the Armed Forces.
§ A cap was placed on the promotion of women above paygrade O-3 (Captain in the Army, Lieutenant in the Navy).
§ No woman serving as director of the WACs, WAVEs, or WAFs was allowed promotion above paygrade O-5 (Lieutenant Colonel in the Army and Commander in the Navy). Women Marines were allowed nothing higher than the temporary paygrade O-6 (Colonel). Women of ALL services were specifically barred from promotion to General Officer.
§ By policy, women were precluded from having command authority over men.
§ Women were specifically barred from serving aboard Navy vessels except for certain hospital ships and specified transports and were further prohibited from duty in combat aircraft engaged in combat missions.
§ Women were barred from participation in campus ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs, as well as from appointments to the Army, Navy or Air Force Academies.
§ Women were denied spousal benefits for their husband unless the he depended on his wife for more than 50 percent of his support.
§ The services were authorized to automatically discharge any woman, married or single, who became pregnant. This provision extended to a military woman who became a parent by either adoption or by marriage to a man who had a minor child/stepchild that resided in the family home at least 30 days a year.
The concept of women serving in the military, even in combat, was a nearly two-century-old practice that was still seeking proper recognition and official sanction in the 1960s. The evolution of women in military service from a sheltered auxiliary to full military status made limited strides during the Vietnam War era, but the impact of those strides would not reach fruition until after the war was over.
As noted earlier, the history of American women in combat can at the least be traced back to of the first major battles of the American Revolution. Margaret Cochran Corbin was NOT a soldier but neither was she a woman who had assumed the garb and name of a man in order to serve as. Rather she was the wife of a soldier who, when he fell mortally wounded, single-handedly continued to fire her cannon until she was wounded and captured. In the parlance of later generations she was not a soldier but an AUXILLARY to the military, despite the fact that she fought as well and "bled as red" as did those men with whom she served.
It has also been noted that women served valiantly in the hospitals and on the battlefields of the Civil War, some disguised as men, some as spies, but most in support roles as civilian nurses. It was the latter that paved the way for expanding opportunities in the United States military. During the Spanish-American war (1898) the Army contracted with civilian women to serve as nurses to soldiers both at home and abroad. Annie Wheeler, daughter of General Fighting Joe Wheeler, accompanied her father who in the Civil War became legendary as a Confederate Cavalry officer, to Cuba where he commanded U.S. Army forces in their battles with the Spanish. Civil War heroine Clara Barton put Annie in charge of a newly organized hospital where her work with sick and wounded soldiers earned her the title "Angel of Santiago." The way she and others like her in that brief war served with a distinction that endeared them to the fighting soldiers paved the way for other women to follow.
The value of nurses to sick or wounded men of the military was validated by those women who had served as civilian contract nurses during the Spanish-American War, and gave ample reason in 1901 to at last officially welcome women into the Army with establishment of the Army Nurse Corps. Seven years later the Navy enlisted 20 women into its own Nurse Corps and, by the time the Untied States entered World War I nearly 5,000 women were on active duty in the Army. When the United States began calling up men for service in Europe in 1917, women were also actively recruited for volunteer service. Though most of the more than 21,000 Army nurses who served during that war were assigned to state-side hospitals or hospital ships on the seas, 10,000 served in England or at front-line hospitals in France.
Though these women were not assigned to combat roles they certainly faced the dangers of the combat zone. On August 17, 1917, six months before soldiers of the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force) began facing their first major, sustained combat, German aircraft bombed British Casualty Clearing Station No. 61 in France. U.S. Army Reserve Nurse Beatrice MacDonald tended the wounded despite the deadly enemy attack until she was herself wounded. A comrade, Reserve Nurse Helen Grace McClelland "cared for her when wounded, (and) stopped the hemorrhage from her wounds under fire caused by bombs from German aeroplanes." That quote is from the Award of the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, to McClelland. A DSC was also awarded to Beatrice MacDonald and the two became the first of FOUR Nurses to receive that high honor in World War I. The other two nurses so decorated for actions the following year were Army Reserve Nurse Isabelle Stambaugh and Red Cross Nurse Miss Jane Jeffery. Both were wounded by enemy fire.
During World War I Lenah
Sutcliff Higbee was awarded the Navy's second highest medal the Navy Cross
"for distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual
and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse
Corps." During World War II the U.S.S. Higbee was commissioned
in her honor, the first American warship named in honor of a woman.
More than 250 Army nurses died on active duty during World War I and 19 members of the Navy Nurse Corps also paid the supreme sacrifice. Not all of the deaths were combat related, however. Most of the Navy Nurse Corps' casualties came during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 - 1919. Navy Reserve Nurses Edna Place, Marie Louise Hidell, and Lilian M. Murphy were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for courageously performing their duties to treat influenza-stricken soldiers until the disease also claimed their lives.
One vastly overlooked role played by women in World War I was the job of the so-called "Hello Girls" who were the first American women ever recruited for non-medical service in the Army. In 1917 General John J. Pershing, commander of the A.E.F., advertised in American newspaper for bi-lingual women to apply for service as Army switchboard operators. More than 7,000 women volunteered and 450 of them were selected and received military and Signal Corps training. They learned basic military radio procedures at Camp Franklin, Maryland (now Fort Meade). After training, the women purchased their Army regulation uniforms complete with "U.S." brass, Signal Corps crests, and "dog tags." Arm patches designating positions were issued. In the spring of 1918 when the first thirty-three operators deployed to Europe they were issued gas masks and steel helmets. [i]
After the Armistice and upon their return to the United States, these women applied for their honorable discharges. Because all Army regulations were worded in the "male" gender, they were denied veterans status. The Army considered them civilians working on a contract basis for the Army. This perplexed the women because they had been required to wear regulation uniforms, they were sworn into service and had to follow all Army regulations. The Chief Telephone Operator, Grace Banker, even received the Distinguished Service Medal from Congress. Even so, in a move typical of the slight so often forced upon women who had served in time of war only to be subsequently overlooked, when those who had served applied for their honorable discharges, the "Hello Girls" were denied veterans status.*
In addition to the more than 21,000 Army and Navy nurses and the 450 "Hello Girls", some 13,000 civilian women worked for the military in clerical and other support positions during World War I. Their contribution did not go completely unnoticed, and American society felt something of a debt to women for how they had acquitted themselves. Many historians believe the successful passage in 1921 of the 19th Amendment extending voting rights to women was in no small part successful because of women who proved their importance during the war.
In the peaceful interim between the world wars (1919 - 1941) the Nurse Corps remained an integral part of the American military, although greatly reduced in size. During that interim, in 1920, the Army formally commissioned its nurses as officers, though the Navy did not follow suit until World War II. By early 1941 there were fewer than 7,000 women in the Army Nurse Corps and fewer than 500 in the Navy Nurse Corps, but with prospects for war looming, recruitment began to swell their ranks. When Japanese bombs and torpedoes rained down on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there were eighty-two nurses serving at the three hospitals in Hawaii, numbering them among the first veterans of that war. Another 105 nurses were serving in the Philippine Islands and at Guam.
Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor the American outpost at Guam was forced to surrender to the Japanese. The five Navy nurses assigned to that station became Prisoners of War and were held by the Japanese until repatriation in August 1942. For the nurses in the Philippines conditions became far worse. Though valiant efforts were made to evacuate the nurses before Bataan and Corregidor fell, 67 Army nurses and 11 Navy Nurses were captured and forced to survive the war in Japanese prison camps. In the European Theater Lieutenant Reba Whittle became a German POW when the airplane on which she was serving in an air evacuation mission was shot down in September 1944.
Army Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, reflecting the courage and dedication of all who served. Sixteen medals were awarded posthumously to nurses who died as a result of enemy fire. These included 6 nurses who died at Anzio, 6 who died when the Hospital Ship Comfort was attacked by a Japanese suicide plane, and 4 flight nurses. Thirteen other flight nurses died in weather-related crashes while on duty. Overall, 201 nurses died while serving in the Army during the war.[ii] The Navy Nurse Corps also suffered its share of casualties while its members earned numerous combat and meritorious service awards as well.
In all, beyond the 6 million civilian "Rosies" who worked in military production factories, nearly half-a-million women served inside the Army, Army Air Force, Navy and Marines during the war. While 75,000 of them served inside the two Nurse Corps' (60,000 Army and 14,000 Navy), six times that number served in clerical, supply, transportation and even flight roles as members of the military forces.
During World War I, as early as 1917, Britain established a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps to enlist women for military service. Their duties were separated into four fields of endeavor: cooking, clerical, mechanical, and miscellaneous. Following the war women continued to serve in the armed forces of England, a pattern adopted by the United States in controversial legislation finally signed by President Roosevelt on May 15, 1941.
Early in 1941 Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts met with General George C. Marshall, the Army's Chief of Staff, and informed him that she intended to introduce a bill to establish an Army women's corps, separate and distinct from the existing Army Nurse Corps. Rogers believed the women's corps should be a part of the Army so that women would receive equal pay, pension, and disability benefits, in contrast to those who had served in the previous war but been denied veterans status or benefits. The opposition perhaps is best seen in the comments of one Congressman who noted, "Who will then do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself; who will nurture the children?"
A compromise version of
Air power was destined to
play a critical role during World War II and on
Not to be outdone by the Army, however with much the same opposition from those who resisted the move to bring women into the military, in the summer of 1942 the Navy established its own female force, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). The title alone left little illusion that the move was nothing more than a temporary measure to meet the demands of the current war however, and in general it was assumed that the WAVES would be disbanded when the war ended. With that in mind and with tongue in cheek, some of them took to defining the acronym for their organization "Women are Very Essential Sometimes."
Unlike the Army's WAAC and WFTD/WAFS however, Navy WAVES were NOT an auxiliary to the Navy, but were accepted directly into service. They served and were treated for the most part, as their male counterparts in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Such a progressive an attitude aside, prejudice lingered in a Navy that still relegated Black men to menial tasks in the galley. Not until 1944 were Black women accepted into the WAVES. Conversely however, although Black women were welcomed into the Army's auxiliaries from their formation, they were assigned to segregated all-Black units. It was, perhaps, the only place in early WWII military where men and women served on a comparable basis, although not in a positive manner.**
Women served in support roles in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I and the value of their service was not lost on the Marine Corps Commandant who, in February 1943, began welcoming women into the World War II the Marine Corps. Under the leadership of Major Ruth Cheney Streeter, a 47-year old mother of four, women of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR), so named because the Marine Corps Commandant refused to use a catchy acronym like WAFS or WAVES, began wearing the legendary and coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
In 1943 the induction of women into the Armed Forces and the debate over their roles finally resulted in a minor victory for women of the WAAC. Both the term and role "Auxiliary" were dropped, and those who were serving in the WAAC were invited to enlist as members of the Army's new Women's Army Corps. The majority of them did. The one setback was the 1943 merging of the WFTD and WAFS into the new Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) as a para-military organization under the Civil Service. By the time legislation was introduced in 1944 to militarize the WASPs, the need for pilots had lessened and the WASPs were disbanded.
Speaking to the valiant women who had served at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, on December 7, 1944, General Arnold stated: "The WASP have completed their mission. Their job has been successful. But as is usual in war, the cost has been heavy. Thirty-eight WASP have died while helping their country move toward the moment of final victory. The Air Forces will long remember their service and their final sacrifice."
Much like the "Hello Girls" of a generation that had served in the previous war, the WASPs were classified as members of the Civil Service, not the Army Air Force, and were denied veterans status. Not until 1977 did Congress finally recognize them as members of the military force that won World War II, granting them status as veterans and authorizing them to wear the World War II Victory Medal. That legislative victory was achieved in no small part, thanks to the efforts of Bruce Arnold, son of the WWII Army Air Force commander who had bid them thanks for their service back in 1944.
During World War II some 150,000 women served in the WAAC or WACs; 100,000 in the Navy's WAVES, more than 1,000 in the WASPS and its predecessors, and nearly 20,000 in the MCWR. The jobs they performed were generally moderately traditional though their duties often put them into harms way and many paid for their service with their lives. Through it all they proved they could provide an important role in military service. Their credo might well have been best echoed in a poster painted for he WAVES by Howard Baer. The annotation reads: "If she's a Navy WAVE, then a woman's task may be anything that a man's task may be, and it's a pretty good bet that she will handle it efficiently."
While the future of the WACs, WAVES and MCWR looked uncertain amid cutbacks when World War II ended, their service had not gone unnoticed. On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 proclaiming that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." Although the President's action that ended racial segregation in the military forces did not mention "sex" or "gender", one month earlier he did sign the Women's Armed Services Integration Act opening the door for women to find careers not as auxiliaries, but as full-fledged, sworn-in members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and newly created Air Force.
While the door opened for women to serve in the Armed Forces in 1948, it opened only slightly. In 1949 legislation prohibited women with dependent children from military service, promotions were capped, women were barred from combat roles, and they were forbidden to command or have authority over even the lowest ranking man.
During the Korean War (1950-1953) nearly 125,000 women served in the military including members of the Nurse Corps, WAC and WAVEs. Seventeen died while on active duty, most in accidents or air crashes. During the Vietnam War 7,000 women in uniform served in-country. Eight died in service including one by hostile fire. Along the way they earned Distinguished Service Medals, Legion of Merits, Air Medals, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. As non-combatants however, none since World War I received the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, or Silver Star.*** Furthermore, as is evident from the words of one male commander, "women are not awarded the Soldier's Medal."
Slowly, in the midst of the Vietnam War, things began to change. In 1967 the Women's Armed Services Integration Act was modified by Public Law 90-130, eliminating the 2% ceiling on the number of women who could serve in the military. At the same time the cap on promotions above paygrade O-3 were removed and women were granted eligibility to hold Flag/General Officer rank. In 1967 the U.S. Air Force opened its ROTC program to women, to by followed by Army ROTC opportunities in 1971. Also in 1971 the Air Force established a policy to allow pregnant women to request a waiver of the automatic discharge rule, which opened the door for women with dependent children to enlist.
In 1972 Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations, expanded Navy ROTC opportunity to women, suspended restrictions on a woman's right to succeed to command in the United States, authorized Naval Officers to be selected for the War College, and expanded the occupational fields available for service, including the opportunity for women to serve at sea aboard the U.S.S. Sanctuary. In 1973 the Navy allowed women to serve on aviation duty in non-combat aircraft, a policy shift that was adopted by the Army the following year and by the U.S. Air Force in 1977.
In 1973 the U.S. Coast Guard began enlisting women for regular active duty and two years later invited them to enroll in the Coast Guard Academy. Under Public Law 94-106, in 1976 the remaining service academies (Army, Navy and Air Force) were opened to women. By 1980 Enlisted Women became eligible for many at-sea, shipboard assignments. In a span of only 13 years from 1967 to 1980, the available roles for women in military service moved forward in a major way.
Among the heady advances for military women during that period was an historic action on June 11, 1970. On that date a star was pinned to the uniform of Colonel Anna Mae Hays, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, as she became the first woman general officer in any branch of service in history. Moments later Elizabeth P. Hoisington, Director of the Women's Army Corps, was also promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. Within a year the Director of Air Force Women, Jeanne M. Holm, became the Air Force's first woman general officer. In 1972 Alene B. Duerk, Chief of the Navy Nurse Corps, received a spot promotion to Rear Admiral (Lower Half). In 1978 Margaret Brewer became the Marine Corps' first woman general.
Some of these women who ascended to leadership were members of The Greatest Generation, having served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But among the ranks of women in uniform was a new generation of leaders, women of the Defining Generation, and they too would make history.
years afterwards legislation was introduced into Congress to remedy
this slight, but the bills were always buried in committee. It took
one of the operators, Mearle Eagan Anderson, over fifty years of
persistence to secure legislation to award the operators veterans
status. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill giving the
"Hello Girls" their deserved recognition as the first U.S.
Army veterans in history.
to be forgotten are the women who, beginning in 1942, were accepted
into service with the U.S. Coast Guard. They were called SPARs, an
acronym for the Coast Guard motto "Semper Paratus - Always
World War II Virginia Hall, a member of the Office of Strategic
Services, became and remains the only American woman since World War I
to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, awarded for her courageous
and dangerous services in the work of espionage. A French woman also
earned a Distinguished Service Cross in WWII.
[ii] The Army Nurse Corps, Army Medical Department
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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