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Military Women Take 200-Year Trek Toward Respect, Parity

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 1998 – Today's military women are doctors, lawyers, pilots, heavy equipment operators, air traffic controllers, paratroopers, forklift operators and military police. But women haven't always enjoyed such prominence in the military.

It took more than 220 years and many trials, tribulations and indignities for women to reach their present plateau in military service, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught.

They've climbed from being cooks, laundresses and nurses with no rank, to generals, admirals, astronauts, pilots, ships' captains, heavy equipment operators, administrators and much more, Vaught said in an interview with the American Forces Press Service. She is president of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

Vaught said she's not one to dwell upon the past, noting there's too much to be excited about today and the future. But it's important for military women today to be aware of their history, she said, quoting a Chinese maxim: "When drinking the water, don't forget who dug the well."

"Many women don't understand today's military isn't the way it has always been for women," said Vaught. "If you're going to understand where you need to go, you need to understand where you've been."

It dismays her when women say all the problems women encountered in the military since the Revolutionary War have been solved -- especially those who say, "I've never been discriminated against."

"They haven't really looked around them and don't really understand that all the problems are not solved," she said. "If they've just come into the military, they may believe there isn't any discrimination. But as they get a little further downstream they'll get a little wiser and understand how discrimination is practiced today vs. another time."

She quickly added, "But it's still so much better than it was when I joined the Air Force in 1957. There's a greater acceptance -- respect -- today, and women are here to stay."

Vaught's historical view starts with the American Revolution, where, she noted, there was no place for women soldiers. "Some women wanted to serve their country so badly, they disguised themselves as men," she said.

The military has historically recognized women's value during periods of crisis, but only for nursing and household-type duties, she said. For example, problems of caring for sick and wounded soldiers prompted the Continental Congress to authorize Gen. George Washington to hire matrons at a rate of one or two per 100 soldiers.

Other women went along with their husbands as nurses, laundresses and cooks, which held true for about 100 years, Vaught said.

The Civil War focused attention on women again because of the need to care for throngs of sick and wounded soldiers, Vaught said.

"I find the requirements to serve as a nurse during the Civil War amusing," Vaught said with a hearty laugh. "They had to be over 30, plain-looking and had to wear dark clothes. Obviously, they didn't intend for nurses to be too attractive." Ironically, those standards were set by Dorthea Dix, a woman the Union Army hired to select women to serve as contract nurses. Many women also volunteered.

"Interestingly," Vaught said, "the standards didn't say anything about nursing abilities."

She said there is no evidence the Confederates hired contract nurses, but women served so it's assumed they were volunteers -- except for the documented case of Sally Tompkins. The Confederates commissioned her as a captain to run a hospital in Richmond.

Vaught also pointed out a famous Union nurse, Mother Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who worked tirelessly to care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield and ran soup kitchens.

A native of Cairo, Ill., Bickerdyke followed Union forces from battlefield to battlefield. "Several generals tried to get rid of her, but by the end of the war, they recognized the importance of the service she was providing," Vaught said. "According to stories, when (Union Army Gen. William T.) Sherman rode into Atlanta, she was there riding through on a horse too. She had been accepted."

Another little-known fact is that Civil War nurses established the first military system to get medical supplies to the battlefields, she noted.

During the Spanish-American War, Vaught said, the Daughters of the American Revolution recruited women to work for the Army as contract nurses. "That was a real breakthrough because it was the first time the Army officially included women in a cohesive unit." The women did so well, the Army decided to form a permanent Army Nurse Corps in 1901, she said. The Navy followed suit in 1908.

Both services set professional nursing qualification standards, but the women got no rank, no command authority and no retirement plan. And if authorities found out about them, women who were married or getting married were immediately discharged, Vaught pointed out.

The Navy broke its nurse-only tradition during World War I and accepted women as yeomen. Vaught said some 12,500 women, including some 17-year-old graduates of finishing schools and clerical schools, were recruited to perform clerical duties. "No one seems to have said they had to have parental consent or had to be 18, 19 or 21," she said.

She said women were accepted in the Naval Reserve and given rank. Most were almost immediately promoted to yeoman first class, whereas men had to work their way up through the ranks. "They gave women credit for their skills and talent, but didn't do that for men," she said.

The Army sent about 300 women in uniform to France as Signal Corps telephone operators. "They were promised they'd become regular Army soldiers and receive the same veterans status as men, but that didn't happen," Vaught said. Those women later waged a 58-year-long battle to get what they'd earned, she said, and most were dead by the time Congress made good on the promises in 1977.

Shortly after World War I, the Army gave its nurses relative rank up to major, but they couldn't command men, Vaught noted. "At the start of World War II, Army and Navy women had relative rank, but didn't have real status in the military."

During World War II, thousands of women lined up to join the Women's Army Corps; the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service); the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots); the Naval Reserve; the Marines; and the Coast Guard Women's Reserve, the SPARs (from the service's motto, "Semper Paratus," "always prepared").

Initially, the Army put women in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. That meant they weren't part of the regular Army, and they had ranks different from the men.

"Well, that didn't work because the Army couldn't support them as an auxiliary," Vaught said. "So they changed it into the Women's Army Corps. WACs had regular rank just like the men. The Army Nurse Corps kept their relative rank until late during the war.

"Again, women's acceptance by the military was crisis-driven," she noted. "Married women and women with children were accepted as long as they had someone to care for their children. Of course, when that crisis was over, they started applying rules again -- for example, saying you can't be in if you have children."

When the war ended, planners and strategists recognized women's talents and skills would be needed in any future war, Vaught said. They saw a need for a peacetime cadre of women and so worked to get legislation giving women a permanent place in the military.

The Women's Armed Services Integration Act, passed in 1948, codified women's status as it was at the end of World War II. "It did give women rank and a permanent place in the services in wartime and peacetime," she said.

Women finally had most of the benefits men had, except Congress set ceilings on the percentage of women in uniform and the number who could be Army lieutenant colonels and colonels or Navy captains and commanders.

"For instance, a 2 percent ceiling was placed on the number of commanders who could be women," Vaught said. "When that ceiling was reached, someone had to retire or die before anyone else could get promoted."

Women were prohibited from being generals or admirals until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 90-130 on Nov. 8, 1967. The measure opened women's promotions to general and flag ranks, said Vaught, who was promoted to brigadier general in 1980. It also lifted ceilings for other ranks and removed the 2 percent ceiling on the number of active duty enlisted women. The law, however, didn't change some of the rules about entitlements. "Those limitations were very frustrating and very real," Vaught said. "There were no such rules for men."

She spoke of a female major stationed with her in Spain who married a civilian with two children. The major had to get the Air Force secretary's permission to have the children live in her house and for the family to have access to medical care, commissary and base exchange. To remain in the service, the major had to have her mother-in-law live with them as the children's primary caretaker, even though the father was there, Vaught said.

As the Vietnam War wound down and the all-volunteer force came along in the early 1970s, women's value to the military came to be recognized more, Vaught said. And one of the big differences today is the freedom military women now have to report something that's not right, she said.

"I can recall a situation where a lieutenant colonel kept improperly pursuing a young lieutenant, asking for a date," Vaught said. "She was uninterested. He continued his pursuit. She finally reported it to the colonel.

"She said, 'I want somebody to tell him to cut it out, and I want him to stand in front of my desk and apologize.' He did," Vaught said. "Would that have happened in 1957? No. Today, women don't feel they have to put up with a lot of things we used to have to put up with.

"It was tough for women in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and it will be tough for women in the next century," she said. "But women proved they could do the job as well as most men. They've gained the respect they've deserved all along."

(Editor's note: The American Forces Press Service has published a variety of articles this year on the contributions of women in the military services and their current roles and missions. To view the articles below, and the latest Defense Department news, visit our Web site at: http://www.dtic.mil/afps/.)

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