Women in the Air Force: A longtime asset

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Dodd
  • 81st Training Wing Historian

The month of March marks the annual observance of Women’s History Month. Women, past and present, have contributed greatly to the many successes of the Air Force and have set the stage for greater opportunities for the more than 58,785 women serving in the active duty Air Force today. Prior to 1976, the Air Force, like much of society, had placed a “glass ceiling” on women’s involvement and promotion within the organization. From June 1948 to 1976, women were part of the Women’s Air Force, a separate but equal part of a larger Air Force. Roles for women during this time were mostly limited to support, administrative and nursing; back then females only accounted for two percent of the force.

Two significant milestones for the WAF included the first woman commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program in 1971, Jane Leslie Holley. In July of that year, Jeanne M. Holm, director of the WAF, became the first woman in the Air Force promoted to brigadier general.

The “glass ceiling” would eventually be cracked and partially dissolved during the next four decades. Beginning in 1976, women were admitted to U.S. military academies. In September, the first group of women pilot candidates entered undergraduate pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, AZ. The next year, women entered undergraduate navigator training. In April 1986, six women served as pilots, co-pilots and boom operators of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers During Operation ELDORADO CANYON.

A few years later, NASA selected Air Force officers Susan J. Helms and Eileen M. Collins to be astronauts in 1990. Lt. Gen. Helms served as an astronaut for 12 years and commanded a numbered Air Force prior to retirement and Col. Collins served with NASA for 15 years. She was the first female to pilot a space shuttle and first to command a shuttle mission.

In 1994, 1st Lt. Jean Marie Flynn completed F-15E training, becoming the first female fighter pilot. She also became the first woman to command a fighter wing. Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell, a 1998 USAF Academy graduate, became the first female African-American fighter pilot in 1999.

To shatter the “glass ceiling” completely, the Defense Department would have to remove its exclusion of women from “direct combat” positions and occupational specialties. Change would come slowly. Between 1948 and 1994, women were barred from military positions that incurred “direct combat on the ground.”

Beginning in 1994, the DOD studied the effects of integrating women into some “combat” positions and occupational fields. Until 2013, each service frame opened various occupational specialties to women but would keep the “combat exclusion” in place for specific combat positions and career fields.

The Air Force only had seven career fields – approximately 4,700 positions or 1 percent of the entire force – still closed to women by 2013. On January 2, 2016, the last hurdle for full integration of women in the military took place: the removal of the “combat exclusion.” On this date, nearly 220,000 positions-about 10 percent of military positions–were opened to women.

According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, “They’ll (women) be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

Since the days of the WAF, opportunities for women to succeed in the Air Force have multiplied and improved. With the elimination of the “combat exclusion,” women now have the opportunity to succeed in all occupational specialties if one desires to do so. As of December 31, 2015, women were 20.3 percent of the officer corps (60,306) and 18.9 percent of the enlisted force (246,695). Of the 58,785 women serving, 676 were pilots.

The future for continued success for women is bright because women throughout the Air Force’s history have flourished as opportunities were provided to them. It took pioneers, those willing and unafraid to shatter the “glass ceiling,” to demonstrate that women can make contributions to the Air Force mission when no barriers referring to gender restrict their access.