Women in the Military History Speech – March
By Judith Leu, Army
Writing Type: Prose
By Judith Leu
The incentive to create the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) came from Massachusetts Rep. Edith Norse Rogers, who introduced the WAAC bill in May 1941. Action was not taken until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Much of the opposition to women in the military was based on traditional notions of women's place being the home, the image of the military as a masculine preserve, and fears that women in the military would lead to women in combat. Wartime demands rapidly escalated after Pearl Harbor. As the wartime manpower crisis increased, the importance of women's potential contributions to the war effort became apparent.
Nurses in the military have a much longer history than any other female soldiers and paved the way for the rest of us women in the military by establishing a very respectable record of military service. With the establishment of the Nurse Corps in 1901 through 1941 and the outbreak of World War II, the government and the military were slow to realize the potential value of women in the armed forces. In addition to nurses, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were a group of 1, 074 brave women who volunteered their flying skills without military rank or benefits during World War II. WASPs were formed in 1943 and disbanded in December 1944. These women ferried military aircraft to depots and shipping points throughout the United States, towed targets for gunnery practice, flight-tested aircraft, and trained young male cadets getting ready to enter combat. Their struggles and achievements went unrecognized until November 1977, when they finally achieved veteran status.
The movement to create the WAAC garnered support from influential women and women's organizations asserting that women had the right to exercise all the responsibilities of citizenship, including military service. The increasing demand for military personnel overcame resistance to women in the military, and military officials realized that WAACs could free men for combat duty. The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps bill passed congress on March 15, 1942. Auxiliary status was not a viable solution for either the Army or the WAAC enlistees. The women were not regular Army, yet they performed Army jobs.
They went overseas but did not have the same benefits as members of the Army if injured. The WAAC volunteers experienced unequal pay, had no entitlements for dependents, and lacked military rank; their rank actually was AUX (auxiliary). The solution came with the passage of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) bill signed into law on July 2, 1943. WAAC became WAC, and women gained full military status. In the transition, enlistees were given the choice of either joining the WAC or returning home.
It still was not easy to overcome negative stereotypes that centered upon the fact that women had entered the male arena. I'm sure a lot of that exists still today. Women could not afford to be less than 100 percent military, and they had to repeatedly prove themselves and struggle against suspicions of incompetence. Male hostility against women in the military could be formidable and was based upon resentment against women replacing men so that those men could go into combat. Another reason for male animosity was the attention given to higher recruiting standards for the Women's Army Corps, which were far above those of male draftees. When I enlisted, I had to have a high school diploma. I had to have pictures taken (full length and head and shoulders) which was sent to higher headquarters for approval prior to acceptance of my enlistment contract, neither of which were required for male recruits. And, by the way, I used to be young and skinny and kind of cute, so I wasn't surprised when my contract was accepted.
During the eight weeks of basic training in 1963, we worked on something from 0430 until 1900. We had 1900 to 2100 off, for things like laundry, ironing, and spit-shining shoes. Then it was lights out. On Sundays we were allowed two hours for church, or for those not wanting to go to church, catching up on letter writing (we had to prove that we wrote at least once to our folks), or more spit-shining. Wow, did we think we had it tough. We were allowed to look at a man only from his elbow to his shoulder. Of course, that was so we could determine his rank. We were forbidden to even look at a weapon, let alone touch one. In addition to drill and ceremonies (without weapons, of course) classes included application and wearing of makeup, starching and ironing of our skirts so they had absolutely no wrinkles and stood by themselves, and walking like a lady.
When I reached my first permanent change of station post, I was assigned to a WAC company billet with a WAC commander and WAC first sergeant and another company for my work unit with a male commander and a male first sergeant. So we had two separate units to which we were responsible.
Women were not allowed to transfer to any overseas posts except Hawaii (considered overseas even though it was a state of the union) and Germany. The logic of that one totally escaped me then as it does now. When 1973 rolled around, and we were starting to be allowed to be treated as real soldiers, we had a little catching up to do -- on our own, I might add. In 1973 we were finally allowed into many more military occupational skills than just typing and stenography I was the first female in the Army Security Agency, which doesn't exist any longer.
From 1973 until 1975, going to the firing range was optional for WACs before being required to qualify with weapons in 1976. The infamous "they" gave us at least a couple of years to familiarize ourselves with the tools of our trade so we could take our rightful places alongside our brothers in arms. I grew up around rifles and pistols, so I was pretty cocky when we were actually able to go to the firing range. Never having been to a firing range with pop-up silhouette targets, I had no idea what to expect. Well, having been widowed by war, standing in that foxhole with a weapon that I finally realized was made to kill people and seeing my first pop-up head-and-shoulders silhouette, would you believe that I had nine left over rounds in a 10-round magazine? I know I'm the only one here who's ever done that. I was crying so hard I couldn't see any of the targets. But it ended up to be a pretty good deal for me because I was the only female for quite a while in my unit. All the males acted a little scared and timid around me. My crying gave them a chance to be a big brother to me, thank goodness, and I never had a problem with anybody after that. I qualified as expert with the M16 after that, thanks to their caring confidence in me. When the three-star general pinned the diamond on me in 1975, he told me that I should be proud for the rest of my life because I was the first female to wear the diamond - in other words, the first female first sergeant who could have men in her unit.
Prior to 1975, women were limited by Congress to be no more than 10 percent of the total force (active duty plus National Guard plus Reserve components). That ceiling was lifted when the United States military ended conscription and the armed forces of the United States became an "all-volunteer force." With no limit on how many women may belong to the armed services, the figure has continued to grow. Today, women are in most units that make up the U.S. armed forces, much more than just secretarial-type jobs that were available for females when I was first in the service.
Although so much of the time I served was spent convincing other soldiers by my actions and performance of duty (mostly command sergeants major and majors) that I was a good soldier and deserved to be treated exactly the same as my male counterparts, I wouldn't trade one single minute of my years of service for anything else in life. I have so many lifelong friends from the years of my service who fill my life with joy and a wonderful sense of accomplishment. You know, when you're not in contact with a civilian friend for a week, they get irritated with you. When you see a veteran friend, even after many years of no contact, they are glad to see you, and the conversation picks up as though you saw each other yesterday. That civilian friend will take a drink away when they think you've had enough. A veteran friend will see you stumbling all over the place and tell you "You'd better drink the rest of that before you spill it." Then they'll take you home and put you to bed.
Notes: (Speech excerpts)