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DoD Hosts Women's History Month Observance at Women's Memorial

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 21, 2003 – Since the Revolutionary War, women's military participation has evolved from exclusion, to traditional jobs such as clerical and nurses, and to nontraditional occupations such as fighter pilot or astronaut, according to Charles S. Abell.

Using military aviation to illustrate the Women History Month theme of "Women Pioneering the Future," Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, pointed out that aircraft didn't become a significant military factor until World War I.

"From the very beginning women were excluded from aviation positions and that status didn't change until World War II," he told the smaller than expected audience at the Department of Defense Women's History Month observance here at the Women's Memorial.

Abell hosted the event for the second year at the memorial. Guest speakers included John M. Molino, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for equal opportunity; Marilee Fitzgerald, deputy director of advisory services for Defense Civilian Personnel Management Service; and Army Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. Michele S. Jones.

He said even though the military wasn't ready to accept women pilots in its ranks, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, was formed in August 1943. More than 25,000 women applied to fly with the WASPs, but only 1,830 were accepted and only 1,074 earned their pilot wings.

"Almost all of the women were white," Abell noted. He explained that Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, leaders of the WASPs, "didn't want to confront the issues of sex and race when attempting to convince military leaders of women's ability to fly."

Thirty-eight WASPs lost their lives in airplane crashes while flying everything from fighters to bombers as they ferried aircraft, towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery training, flew weather-tracking flights and conducted simulated bombing missions, the deputy undersecretary said.

"Since they were civilian employees, these women were denied military honors at their burials and the surviving WASPs often had to pass the hat around to pay for funeral expenses," Abell said.

He said the WASPs began to campaign for recognition in the mid-1970s after the Air Force announced its plans to train its "first women military pilots."

"Finally, in 1977, Congress passed a law declaring the WASPs to be veterans of World War II," he noted. "In 1984, the Air Force awarded the Victory Medal to each woman and the American Theater Medal to those who had served for more than one year.

"Funeral honors policy has also been changed, and now permits WASPs to receive military funeral honors," Abell said.

Today, women are playing a much more significant role in military aviation, he noted. "For example, there are more than 700 women qualified as helicopter pilots," Abell said. "Almost 520 women are currently serving on active duty as fixed-wing pilots, including more than 120 women who are fighter and bomber pilots."

Fitzgerald told the audience that women have come a long way since former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, which made her the nation's first female cabinet secretary. She then pointed out that President Bush has appointed women to five Cabinet-level positions.

"These talented women join 24 others in our nation's history who have held Cabinet or Cabinet-level appointments in the executive and legislative branches," Fitzgerald noted. She also noted that the judiciary branch seats two women on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg.

Nearly 2 million women serve in an array of federal positions across the nation, she said. They are teachers, firefighters, human resource specialists, sky marshals, Secret Service agents, air traffic controllers, tugboat captains, scientists, engineers, prison guards, weapons system designers, and secretaries of agriculture, labor, interior.

"The hope and future of women in federal civilian service is evidenced every day by the contributions of nearly 250,000 women employed by DoD," Fitzgerald said. "Together, with an active duty force of more than 200,000 women, I'm proud to say that DoD is the nation's largest employer of women."

Jones started her remarks by asking the audience to say a special prayer for all the service men and women and civilian contractors overseas who are in harm's way or, are going into harm's way. "And for their families, who are struggling with the unknown," the sergeant major said.

Jones said Women's History Month is a time to cerebrate the achievements, remember the hardships and motivate for the future. "It's a time to reflect on the contributions made by women and reinforce that women are an integral part of history. Most importantly, it's a time to rededicate ourselves to continue to achieve the things necessary to mold our nation, our lives, the lives that touched us and the lives that we touched."

Asking the audience to think about the women who touched their lives, Jones said, "Every person in here can think of at least one women who have had a profound positive impact on your life. It may be our mothers, wives, sisters, aunts or a neighbor.

"There's no greater influence in the world than the influence of a woman," Jones said. "They may not be celebrated across the nation, but they're celebrated in our hearts, in our actions and in our deeds. And in the way we conduct ourselves as professionals and as leaders and the way we hold our folk, eat our food, stand up straight and our study habits."

Women of the past have afforded today's women a chance to do what they feel they must do, not based on gender or anything other than a need or desire, she noted.

Noting that the future lies in the younger generation, Jones emphasized that it isn't about gender, "it's about performing what we must do as individuals, citizens and soldiers. It's not necessarily about being a women, it's about performing a mission and a responsibility based on what we have to do."

Master Sgt. Artri Sherrod of the Air National Guard sang the National Anthem. The invocation and benediction was given by Army Reserve Chaplain (Col.) Geraldine Manning. The colors were presented by a joint color guard from the Military District of Washington.

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