DoD Marks 50th Year of Military Women's Integration
By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 17, 1998 "In the great defining words of our democracy -- liberty, justice, equality and opportunity."
Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre used this phrase June 12 "to define the importance of our gathering" at DoD's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. The ceremony was held at the Women's Memorial in Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.
"America has been and remains now the most revolutionary country in the world, precisely because it started with those simple principles of democracy," Hamre said.
Hamre retold the story of women who, during World War II, put on military uniforms and served in all branches. Back on the home front, they kept factories running and offices humming, he said, yet in the aftermath of the war were told it was time to return to the kitchens and parlors of America's homes.
"That didn't fit the principles of American democracy," Hamre said. "You can't fight for freedom and liberty overseas and ignore the principles of justice and opportunity at home. America's democracy just won't let you do that."
So in 1948, President Truman signed the executive order that desegregated the U.S. armed forces. Congress, led by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act.
The act authorized regular and reserve status for women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Before then, and except for nurses, women could not serve in the regular forces in peacetime. Today, about 200,000 women serve on active duty and make up 14 percent of the force; about 225,000 women serve in the reserve components and comprise 15.5 percent of their strength.
"Integration is the only word that makes sense in American democracy, and it stands side-by-side with our other hallowed principles of liberty, freedom, justice and opportunity," Hamre said.
But this event wasn't only about the past, it also celebrated the future, Hamre pointed out. "Were this event just about the past, just a recollection of events 50 years ago, we would fall short of our duties here today."
Brig. Gen. Frances C. Wilson, commanding general at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va., was master of ceremonies. Also, three retired military women who served during the implementation of the integration act and a current NASA astronauttold stories of their military experiences and discussed their views on the future of women in the military.
Retired Army Col. Mary A. Hallaren began her Army career in 1942 as one of the first women volunteers selected for officer candidate school in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, the forerunner of the Women's Army Corps.
Hallaren favored the retention of women over the long term and led the charge for integration, arguing, "It would be tragic if in another emergency, a new generation had to start from scratch, had to duplicate efforts, make the same mistakes twice. It would be foolhardy to wait for another war to find out how and where a woman could best be used in the national defense."
Affectionately known as the "little colonel," the 4-foot-10 Hallaren recalled the resistance women faced 50 years. "A prime objection [to integrating women into regular service,] which we were told was discussed in closed sessions, was that if women were in the regular military, men would have to take orders from a woman. Heaven forbid," she said.
Hallaren reflected on how limitations outlined in the 1948 act are obsolete today -- women attend the service academies and serve in gender-integrated units and on the front lines, and women have risen to general and flag officer ranks and routinely command men, she noted.
"We've come a long way in the last 50 years, and the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 made it all possible," Hallaren said.
Retired Navy Capt. Winifred Quick Collins began her Navy career in 1942. She was appointed chief of navy personnel for women in 1957, which put her in a position to observe how Navy women overcame discriminatory obstacles and how the Navy came to depend on them.
Collins, the author of "More Than a Uniform: A Navy Woman in a Navy Man's World," recalled her experience when the integration act was passed. "It was emancipation, in a sense, for military women," she said.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm also enlisted in 1942 and drove an Army truck until she received a regular commission in the newly formed Air Force. From 1965 to 1972, she was director of Women in the Air Force and was active in expanding military women's roles and opportunities. She was the first Air Force woman to become a brigadier general and the first woman to pin on two-star rank.
"None of us 50 years ago ever envisioned anything like this," Holm said, reflecting on the strides military women have made.
Nowak represented the progress the military has made in opening new fields of opportunity to women. She was commissioned in 1985 from the U.S. Naval Academy and is currently in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning Branch.
"The [integration] act laid the foundation for future achievements," Nowak said. "It is with sincere admiration that I thank and congratulate those that have paved the way to make these achievements possible."
The DoD celebration wrapped up with past and present military women cutting a cake together inside the Women's Memorial.
The actual integration act papers President Truman signed into law on June 12, 1948, were displayed at the memorial June 11 and 12.