Within three years of the Japanese surrender ending the war in the Pacific, Congress acknowledged the contributions women had made to the war effort as active duty and reserve personnel by authorizing the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (WASIA). This 1948 legislation permitted women to seek out permanent careers in the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force. There were, however, limitations to the number of women who could enlist and restrictions on the occupations they could hold. The number of women in the Air Force, Army, and Navy, for example, could not exceed two percent of the total strength of the armed services. Officials further limited women officers in the Navy to ten percent of the total female enlisted strength of the service.
According to Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, only 60 percent of the Navy’s ratings were open to women in 1952, a percentage that decreased annually. Within a decade, that number shrank to 21 percent. Ebbert and Hall also cite two professional groups—“administrative and clerical, and medical and dental”—making up 90 percent of occupations available to enlisted women.
While the act permitted women to serve in every military branch in perpetuity, WASIA did not go so far as to sanction parity between the sexes regarding aerial and ground combat duty. The Department of Defense (DOD), rather, maintained the era’s gender and social norms that associated men with combat duty and women with nursing and secretarial occupations, despite wartime and postwar evidence that confirmed women were just as capable as men in handling combat aircraft on the ground and in the air.
It was not until 1993, however, that billets centered on the operation of combat aircraft in support of combat operations opened for women, dramatically expanding the talent pool for such positions.
In September 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt received a letter from famed American aviator Jacqueline Cochran who requested the support of the First Lady for women pilots to serve in the armed forces.
Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring commended “the interest of women pilots in aviation and in national defense” as “gratifying.” However, “the organization of the Air Corps and the Air Reserve,” he advised, “does not provide for or contemplate the organization of units including women pilots.”
Absent formal authorization for women combat pilots, Cochran organized a small cadre of 27 talented women pilots for the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). Anticipating increased “pressure on our man power” and, therefore, a domestic shortage of male pilots during the war, WFTD pilots received flight instruction in military aircraft from military instructors.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) ultimately absorbed Cochran’s WFTD, and ferrying Allied aircraft to airbases across the country became their primary assignment. Officials selected exceptionally talented women pilots to tow targets for male gunners or to serve as instructors themselves.
As journalist Beverly Weintraub reports, not all male Army personnel were open to the idea of women pilots. There were some recorded incidences of sabotage and even violence against WASP. One pilot found her engine would not start because someone had stuffed it with rags while another discovered her rudder cables partially severed. Weintraub identified a situation in which one WASP died after her engine malfunctioned and the plane crashed. Investigators later determined that an unidentified saboteur had contaminated the fuel tank with sugar.
Despite threats of sabotage from their male colleagues, WASP flew 77 types of aircraft over approximately 60 million miles for the Army Air Forces during the war, incurring 38 fatalities—a rate of one for every 16,000 miles.
Of her service to the country, Cochran lamented in her autobiography, “I spent more time on the ground fighting administrative battles than I did in piloting planes in the air.”
In her final report to General Henry “Hap” Arnold regarding the WASP, Cochran recommended that future women’s pilot programs “be militarized from the beginning”—meaning that women’s pilot instruction should include combat training.
The WASP program dissolved in December 1944, owing, in part, to the general draw down of pilot training overall.
Not all service branches and bureaus opposed women in combat aviation support, however. The material support branch for naval aviation—the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer)—was far more receptive to the incorporation of women into their ranks. Women’s Reserve Lieutenant Joy Bright Hancock, like Cochran, identified “estimates of aviation manpower needs” as the leading factor for “the employment of womanpower” in naval aviation.
Hancock’s assignment to BuAer prior to the outbreak of war and the institutional knowledge she amassed made her an asset to the continued integration of women into BuAer. She worked with BuAer officers to outline not only the numbers of women needed, but the types of employment they would undertake in the field of aeronautics. “The only way to meet the need of men trained in communication in the fleet,” Hancock reasoned, “would be to build up a Women’s Reserve to fill the billets ashore vacated by these men and to meet expanding needs.”
In March 1942, a copy of a proposed bill establishing a Women’s Auxiliary Reserve bounced between the Bureau of the Budget, the Judge Advocate General, and the Bureau of Personnel, and within days similar House and Senate bills circulated around the Capitol. The Senate Naval Affairs Committee demanded concessions, including restrictions as to the departments to which women could serve, particularly in naval aircraft. As committee chairman, Senator David I. Walsh (D-MA) “and several other chivalrous gentlemen,” Hancock chided, “were sure that a woman’s place was in the home and that to permit women to become members of the armed forces would destroy their femininity and future standings as ‘good mothers.’”
After several revisions and approval by the House and the Senate, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 689 on July 30, 1942, establishing the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES).
Unlike male officers and enlisted men, Public Law 689 limited Navy women to shore duty within the continental United States, denying WAVES any opportunity for duty aboard combat ships or aircraft.
The list of aviation officer billets for women was nevertheless immense and included “aerological engineering, aeronautical engineering, air combat information, air-navigation gunnery instructor, air transportation, assembly and repair vocational training, celestial navigation (air navigation), flight desk, flight records, [Celestial] Link [flight] [simulator] training, photographic interpretation, recognition, recognition and gunnery, radio radar, schedules, and air traffic control.” BuAer offered enlisted women billets for “aerographer’s mate, aviation machinist’s mate (for both aircraft and instruments), aviation metalsmith, parachute rigger, radioman, aviation free gunnery instructor, navigational aids instructor, aviation electronic technician’s mate, aviation ordnance man, control tower operator, and transport airman.”
These roles, many of which were previously assigned to men, helped women, as historian Susan Godson posits, to “avoid stereotypical ‘women’s work.’” WAVES were susceptible to the grumblings of enlisted men and the frustrations of seasoned line officers, however. These manifested, Godson notes, in the male insistence on “carrying out orders and performing duties by the book.”
Although prohibited by law from serving in combat zones, some WAVES navigators found assignment with aircrews in Hawaii. A part of the Pacific Theater, the women assigned to this area of operation could adopt the honor as members of the first American female military aircrew.
With the threat of further Japanese attack on the island, however slight, the WAVES aircrews based at Hawaii also had the distinction of serving on the margins of a combat zone, proving their capability in combat support roles while simultaneously defying the assumed gender roles of the era.
The civilian volunteer branch of the Office of Civilian Defense—known as the Civilian Air Patrol (CAP)—welcomed men and women regardless of race as a matter of federal policy. In practice, however, administrators upheld the social standards of the era. As historian Frank A. Blazich, Jr. confirms, de facto segregation grounded women and African Americans. There were exceptions, most notably the 111th Flight Squadron in Chicago, which employed 25 Black and white, male and female pilots, making it the first fully integrated uniformed flying unit in the United States. The diversity that defined the 111th, Blazich notes, was atypical as “the era’s unwritten prejudices and the machinations of Jim Crow, ensured CAP coastal patrol had a monochromatic racial identity.”
For eighteen months, white male CAP volunteer aviators flew armed privately-owned aircraft as a civilian coastal patrol antisubmarine operation in the Battle of the Atlantic, oftentimes with African American men in aviation and facility support roles. Two aircraft, each with a pilot and observer, flew for several hours up to fifteen miles offshore at altitudes varying from hundreds to thousands of feet. By May 1943, Army and Navy instructors began to provide antisubmarine warfare training courses to CAP aircrews. In the first few months of operations, however, some women managed to get inside cockpits as observers before CAP National Headquarters restricted flight crews to men.
Following the end of World War II, the United States adopted a more active foreign policy than before, which included a larger standing military with forces permanently stationed overseas. In support of these efforts, postwar legislation enumerated as “the duty of every male citizen of the United States” aged 18 to 26 “to submit to registration” in Selective Service, making them “liable for training and service in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
To this day, the Selective Service System continues in its responsibility to register and potentially conscript able-bodied men ages 18 to 25. Another vestige of postwar military expansion that continues to this day is a racially- and sexually-integrated armed force. In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman initiated the process of desegregating the military along racial lines. Executive Order 9981 required the armed services of the United States represent “the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity . . . without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
This directive came on the heels of WASIA, which had the effect of incorporating all women’s emergency reserve units, like the WAVES and the WASPs, into the regular Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Three decades later, increasing opposition to the war in Vietnam, with coverage of domestic protests dominating news media, eventually caused the military to shift from conscription to an all-volunteer force (AVF). Amidst this substantial change, advocates for racial and gender integration and equality, including Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., endeavored to improve morale by reshaping policy. In a series of 121 “Z-grams,” Zumwalt communicated directly to his sailors by addressing concerns and issues that affected officers and enlisted personnel. “No other problem concerns me as deeply as reversing the downward trend of Navy retention rates,” Zumwalt wrote in his second Z-gram, “and I am committing myself to improving the quality of Navy life in all respects and restoring the fun and zest of going to sea.”
In August 1972, preceding the institutional shift to the AVF, Zumwalt penned Z-gram #116 in response to the growing Women’s Liberation Movement. “I believe we can do far more than we have in the past in according women equal opportunity to contribute their extensive talents and to achieve full professional status.” He further acknowledged the “imminence” of the AVF and authorized a limited assignment of women to seafaring vessels, using the hospital ship USS Sanctuary
as a means test.
Anticipating the congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee federal protection against sex discrimination in employment, the CNO strove for his Navy to display equal opportunity before federal legislation dictated it.
Despite Zumwalt’s efforts, the Navy remained resolute in its prohibition of women in combat aviation.
The admittance of women to the military academies in 1976, too, served as an integral moment that demonstrated how gender redefined women’s service in the officer corps. Historian Tanya Roth argues that the first women cadets and midshipmen served “a death blow to the official reliance on femininity that had reigned since the 1940s.” Variation in the physical standards, billets, and duty assignments consigned to women only enhanced perceived differences between the sexes in the officer corps.
“Though they were expected to take the same courses as men—engineering, data processing, calculus, physics, and the naval sciences, to learn all aspects of naval warfare, management, and operations—while the men did summer sea duty, the women were limited to shore commands.”
Even with this differential treatment, female students had to demonstrate parity in order to achieve a semblance of equity. The inclusion of women in officer training programs also did not initiate major changes to curriculum. Universal education in combat training and military leadership, therefore, abetted in the gradual shift toward the reversal of combat exclusion based on sex. The integration of women to the service academies in no way altered the combat mission; rather, “it expanded to recognize that although not every
cadet would perform in combat, every cadet would prepare for such scenarios,” regardless of sex.
The engagement of women with the same combat leadership and training curricula as men began to disrupt the Cold War gender binary that rigidly defined combat as an exclusively male vocation.
One of the most influential figures in the fight to repeal combat exclusion in naval aviation was Rosemary Bryant Mariner. In 1972, her mother sent her a newspaper article that announced the Navy’s decision to open pilot training to women. After lengthy discussions with recruiters, Mariner was promised she could fill one of eight coveted positions for women’s flight school if she could graduate from Purdue’s aeronautics program early. Two weeks after earning her degree, in December 1972, she began her studies at Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island and, by May 1973, she began pilot training in Pensacola, Florida.
Of her many achievements, Mariner became the first woman aviator to fly a single-seat Douglas A-4 Skyhawk jet attack aircraft.
The sustained aerial bombardment of Baghdad that defined Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 marshalled Mariner into advocacy for the repeal of combat exclusion policies. During the conflict, she commanded VAQ-34, the tactical electronic warfare squadron based out of the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, California. While she could not fly combat missions, Mariner put her skills to use in simulation instruction.
Retired Air Force Major General Jeanne Holm conceded that “the Navy’s policies were less restrictive than the Air Force’s with respect to types of aircraft open to women.” Opportunities to fly those aircraft, however, were on par with the other services “chiefly because of the added constraints imposed by the legislative ban on combat ships.”
Prohibited by her active duty status from petitioning Congress directly, Mariner used her leadership role in the non-profit Women Military Aviators and as a member of a DOD advisory board to advocate for policy change.
The 1980s was a decade in which the DOD centered their focus on women in the military. A series of studies—Women in the Military: Background Review
(October 1981), Women in America’s Defense
(June 1982), and Women in the Army Policy Review
(November 1982)—initiated conversations surrounding the idea of integrating women into combat roles. “The central issue of combat exclusion for military women is not just one of equal opportunity and career advancement,” the DOD suggested in its 1983 Status Summary. “At least as important . . . is the question of management flexibility and the relative authority of the several service secretaries to assign all qualified personnel when and where they are most needed.”
Federal statutes denied Navy and Marine Corps women any duty assignment aboard aircraft engaged in combat missions, nor could these women be permanently assigned to Navy vessels outside the classifications of hospital ships or transports. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), a civilian advisory board established in 1951 to provide guidance to the DOD on matters regarding womanpower, strongly recommended the repeal of combat exclusion as early as 1967. In 1976 and again in 1982, DACOWITS urged the DOD to repeal portions of Section 6015 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, allowing the services to expand the access and assignment of women to seafaring vessels and combat aircraft.
Justifications for the admittance of women in combat roles varied substantially. Rescinding this legislation would provide the first opportunity for women to volunteer
for combat. Opening billets previously denied to women could also have the beneficial effect of increasing enlistments. In a post-Vietnam AVF, maintaining an adequate fighting force became—and remains—a central concern for officials.
Reversing combat exclusion, the DOD reasoned, “would have a favorable effect on the morale of those military women who feel constrained by current legal restrictions,” adding that “this could be short-lived, absent significant policy changes.”
The DOD acknowledged that any future legislation establishing equity between the sexes in the military had to be a substantive permanent policy that did not include quotas. After decades of half-measures, at the end of the Cold War, what was simply an acknowledgement inched closer to reality.
At a press conference on April 28, 1993, flanked by the military chiefs, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin spoke of a new policy related to women in the armed forces. “The essence of the policy,” he told reporters at the Pentagon, “is that the military services are to open up more specialties and assignments to women.” Aspin issued four instructions to the services with the intention to integrate women into combat assignments, aircraft, and surface vessels. “First of all, the services are to allow women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft. Second, the Navy is to open up additional ships to women. Third, I’m instructing the Navy to draft a proposal—which I shall forward to Congress—that would remove the last legislative barrier to the assignment of women to combat vessels. And fourth, the Army and Marine Corps are being instructed to look for opportunities [for] women to serve in positions such as field artillery and air defense.”
As of April 1993, women could carrier-qualify, widening their range of experience necessary for promotion and twenty years after that, in 2013, at the urging and recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat roles.
These changes to personnel policy resulted from a multi-decade, multi-service coalition of women and their allies seeking to change discriminatory policies that barred capable and proficient “flygirls,” “women mechs,” and “lady pilots” from handling combat aircraft. The decades-old laws and policies reflected the social context of the era, which allied combat with men and women with administrative and nursing work. The early-1990s, thus, marked the start of a new era, one in which the services and the DOD expanded women’s access to billets previously denied to women after five decades of consistently demonstrating their ability to handle, maintain, and operate combat aircraft.
 Combat Exclusion Laws for Women in the Military: Hearings Before the House Armed Services Committee
(1987) (statement of Martin M. Ferber). Accessed April 3, 2023. https://www.gao.gov/assets/t-nsiad-88-8.pdf; Beverly Weintraub, Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators
(Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2021), 18-19.
Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women in a Century of Change
(Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2014), 156.
Katherine Sharp Landdeck, The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II
(New York: Crown, 2020), 60.
Harry H. Woodring quoted in Landdeck, The Women with Silver Wings
Jacqueline Cochran, The Stars at Noon
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Cochran, The Stars at Noon
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Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Cochran, The Stars at Noon
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Cochran, The Stars at Noon
Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Joy Bright Hancock, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972), 49.
An Act To expedite the war effort by releasing officers and men for duty at sea and their replacement by women in the shore establishment of the Navy, and for other purposes, 56 Stat. 730 (July 30, 1942); Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Deborah G. Douglas, American Women and Flight since 1940
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Susan H. Godson, Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy
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Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Frank. A. Blazich, Jr., ‘An Honorable Place in American Air Power’: Civil air Patrol Coastal Patrol Operations, 1942-1943
(Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2020), 73.
Ibid., 1, 73, 74, 72.
An Act To amend the Act of August 1, 1947, to clarify the position of the Secretary of the Air force with respect to such Act, and to authorize the Secretary of Defense to establish six additional positions in the professional and scientific service, and for other purposes, 62 Stat. 604 (June 24, 1948).
Exec. Order No. 9981, 3 C.F.R. (1948). Accessed April 3, 2023. https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/executive-orders/9981/executive-order-9981.
E. R. Zumwalt, “Z-Gram #2: Retention Study Groups,” 14 July 1970, Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified January 5, 2022, accessed April 10, 2023, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/z/list-z-grams/z-gram-2.html.
E. R. Zumwalt, Jr., “Z-Gram #116: Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women,” 7 August 1972, Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified January 6, 2022, accessed April 10, 2023, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/z/list-z-grams/z-gram-116.html.
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Tanya L. Roth, Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980
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Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Roth, Her Cold War
Douglas, American Women and Flight since 1940
Richard Goldstein, “Rosemary Mariner, Pathbreaking Navy Pilot and Commander, Is Dead at 65” New York Times
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Weintraub, Wings of Gold
Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution
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Douglas, American Women and Flight since 1940
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Weintraub, Wings of Gold
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