Women have always been pioneers in flight. As early as the late 1700s women joined the ranks of "aeronauts" -- balloonists who were hailed for their bravery using the newly created technology in often dangerous aerial ascensions. France led in the early groundbreaking endeavors where women such as Citoyenne Henri, Jeanne-Genevieve Labrosse, and Elisabeth Thible became famous for their roles in ballooning. In 1804, Madame Sophie Blanchard was named Chief Air Minister of Ballooning by Napoleon, where she drew up plans (which were never executed) for the aerial invasion of England. Other European trailblazers included Mrs. Margaret Graham from Great Britain and Wilhelmine Reichard of Germany.
In the United States, several well-know women continued improving the scientific understanding of flight, bringing attention to is possibilities to the public. Mary Myers - aka Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut - was not only the first American female to pilot her own balloon, she was also instrumental in designing lighter-than-air craft, which were then used by the Department of War's Weather Service and later in the Spanish American War. The third woman ever to fly an airplane was Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur, who was active in providing some "business sense" to the famed fliers, including helping to negotiate their first contract with the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Illustration of Madame Sophie Blanchard's balloon ascent to mark the birthday of the French Emperor Napoleon in Milan on August 15, 1811
Advertisement for Mrs. Margaret Graham's grand night ascent
at the Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, London, England in 1850
Mary "Carlotta" Myers, circa 1890
Advertisement for Mary "Carlotta" Myers' balloon ascent at the Jefferson County Fair,
Watertown, New York on September 17, 1886
Ruth Law became interested in flying at an early age and received her pilot's license in November of 1912. In 1916, she broke the non-stop distance flight record piloting from Chicago to New York, and when asked by a reporter, "You have made the longest flight a woman ever made, haven't you?" she responded, "I have made the longest flight an American has ever made." When the United States entered World War I, Law petitioned to have women serve as military pilots. While denied, she was the first female authorized to wear an official Army Signal Corps aviation uniform, and she participated in Liberty Bond drives by dropping leaflets from her plane encouraging people to buy bonds for the war effort.
Ruth Law at the controls of her Curtiss Model D airplane, circa 1915
In 1917, Ruth Law wrote an article for the Chicago Sunday Herald
arguing that women should be able to fly in combat during World War I
Ruth Law performed aerial stunts for the troops at Camp McClellan, Alabama, on October 27, 1917.
During the period between the first and second World Wars, women took the lead in organizing associations to advance their cause to be considered equals in the field of aviation. Formed in 1929, the Ninety-Nines organization was led by famous pilots such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran and worked to end gender discrimination with the government's Civilian Pilot Training Program -- a federal initiative to ensure there were enough pilots trained in case of war. The Betsy Ross Air Corps was a female-only paramilitary group created in 1931 to support the Army Air Corps and "dedicated to the sole purpose of national defense." Willa Brown, the first African American women to earn her pilot's license in the United States, worked diligently to gain acceptance for women and black pilots, becoming one of the first female officers of the U.S. Civil Air Patrol and led training for over 200 fliers who would go on to be Tuskegee Airmen.
Amelia Earhart, one of the founders of the Ninety-NInes, with her Lockheed Electra airplane, circa 1937
Jackie Cochran, one of the founders of the Ninety-Nines, at the 1938 Bendix Race
Willa Brown and male colleagues being sworn in as officers of the Civil Air Patrol, 1942.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, women pressed to join the military ranks to support the country's defense, but the response was incrementally slow. In September of 1942, General Henry "Hap" Arnold approved the formation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, where female pilots conducted test flights at factory sites and then flew the new planes to Army Air Forces installations. However important these organizations were to the defense mission, the women who joined them were not considered members of the military. In August of 1943, the Detachment and Squadron were merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) unit with Jacqueline Cochran as director. The WASPs delivered new aircraft, flew cargo, and towed targets for live-fire anti-aircraft exercises, sometimes getting shot up. When General Arnold attempted to bring the WASPs into the Army Air Forces, a counter-reaction by male pilots and their commanders led to the end of the unit by December 1944.
In parallel, the formation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and later the Women's Army Corps (WAC) allowed females to actually join the military. In September of 1942, these service members were assigned to the Army Air Forces in a host of duties including as weather observers, secretaries, cryptographers, radio operators, nurses, aerial photograph analyzers, control tower operators, postal employees, parachute riggers, maintenance specialists, and sheet metal workers. Known as Air WACs, over 90,000 women had served in uniform by war's end.
Cornelia Clark Fort was famous for encountering a Japanese Zero during the initial attack on Pearl Harbor. Fort was giving flying lessons to a student pilot when she almost collided with the enemy aircraft in mid-air. Luckily Fort and the student avoided the crash. Afterwards, Fort had a unique aerial vantage of watching the Pearl Harbor unfold.
Air-WAC recruitment poster
A WASP piloting a plane
WACs attend a briefing with fellow servicemen
Two WACs standing under the engines of a B-17 Bomber
Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran inspecting WASPs with an unidentified Army officer
Mary Josephine Farley works on a Wright Whirlwind airplane, circa 1942
Women pilots in flight gear during World War II
"Don'ts for Auxies" taken from the book "The Waacs" (1943)
PFC Emma Jane "Windy" Windham was the first crew chief and aerial engineer in the WAC. Windham was killed in a training exercise over England on March 31, 1945 when her B-17G collided with another aircraft in heavy overcast conditions
World War II era poster lauding women's service in the Armed Forces
Civilian women were also key to the war effort, and starting in November of 1942 there were women working as mechanics at Maxwell's assembly hangers with the 68th Sub-Depot. The first group of women in uniform came to Maxwell in April of 1943, and when a second group arrived at Gunter Air Field that June, the MPs on duty thought it as a "mirage." Attached to Squadrons D of the 2100 and 2132 Base Units, the WACs filled several key duties at the two bases, including serving as radio technicians, personnel specialists, recruiters, code instructors, control tower operators, and 40-odd other positions. In proving itself to the male-dominated base, the well-disciplined 714th WAC Post Headquarters won "Best in Parade" during a competition in October of 1943. As the WASP was being deactivated, a group of female pilots formed the Order of the Fifinella at Maxwell using as their mascot a Walt Disney designed gremlin.
Air WACs moving equipment on the flight line at Maxwell Field
(Photo courtesy of the Air University History Office)
Glen Miller visits women riveters at the repair shop on Maxwell Field
(Photo courtesy of Air University History Office)
Colonel Elmer Bolling, Maxwell Field commander, presents a trophy to a servicewoman
(Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History)
WASP publicity photo taken at Maxwell Air Base (November 24, 1944)
WASPs at Gunter Field
(Photo courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency)
.WASPs at Maxwell Field
(Photo courtesy of Air Force Historical Research Agency)
After the war, women continued to press their case for equality within the branches of the military. However, when the United States Air Force was created in September of 1947, no WACs were brought over into the regular service. Due to concerns about troop levels in the face of Soviet expansion and the need to avoid a peacetime draft, Congress passed, and President Harry S. Truman signed, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in June of 1948, which allowed women to serve as permanent, regular members of the military. But even though they were welcomed as "equals," the new law prohibited women serving as pilots, specifically limited them serving on aircraft "engaged in combat missions" and restricted females to 2% of the total force (a number not actually reached until decades later.)
On July 8, 1948, Montgomery native Esther Blake became the first woman to join the Air Force, enlisting during the first minute of the first hour or the first day permitted. The initial Women in the Air Force (WAFs) were relegated to primarily clerical and medical positions, but with the start of the Korean War in 1950, women faced many of the same battlefield environments that men did. Lieutenant Jonita Bonham gained national fame while serving as a nurse on medical evacuation planes that were subject to hostile fire. In September of 1950, her plane crashed in the Sea of Japan, and despite numerous broken bones and other injuries, she personally saved 17 servicemen. She and another female nurse, Alabama native Vera Brown who heroically passed in the crash, were the only WAFs to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Korean War.
Nurses stationed at Tuskegee Army Air Field during World War II
(Photo courtesy of the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Institute)
Nurses at Tuskegee Army Air Field take flight
(Photo courtesy of the Air University History Office)
Romay Davis in uniform during World War II
As a WASP and one of the first Chinese-American military pilots, Hazel Lee faced her own level of persecution when she make a forced landing in a Kansas farmer's field. The farmer mistook her for Japanese and chased her around her plane with a pitchfork until she was able to convince him otherwise. Lee as killed when her P-63 collided with another plane on November 23, 1944.
President Harry S. Truman signs the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 allowing women to serve permanently during peacetime
Women in the Air Force (WAF) recruiting poster
1st Lt Jonita Bonham at the Dogpatch Diner, Puson Korea in 1950
(Photo courtesy of Renée Bovée)
Western Union telegram received by 1st Lt. Jonita Bonham's parents notifying them of injuries sustained by Bonham in an airplane crash on September 25, 1950
(Photo courtesy of Renée Bovée)
1st Lt. Jonita Bonham receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross from General George E. Stratemeyer. Although suffering from a skull fracture, broken cheek bone, shoulder, and wrist, 1st Lt. Bonham saved 27 servicemen on the flight from shark infested waters.
(Photo courtesy of Renée Bovée)
Air Force recruitment poster
Without regard to their continued exceptional service, women were confronted with persistent chauvinism from their male counterparts and Air Force leadership. One duty billet which became hotly contested was staffing the air control tower. Women had been serving in that capacity since World War II, and a notable role model of professionalism in this field was Sergeant Eileen Shoemaker of Maxwell, who in May of 1952 quickly relayed a series of emergency instructions which prevented the crash of an F-84 Thunderjet.
By the mid-1950s however, there was a surge of complaints that female "voices were hard to understand." General Curtis LeMay, from his assumption as Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command through his time as Chief of Staff, campaigned to have women removoed as tower control operators.
Advertisement for WAF recruiting booklet
A WAF salutes in a promotional photograph
"A Long Look at the New WAF" article published in The Airman
Annual WAF Staff Directors Conference, Headquarters, Washington, D.C., November 1956
Squadron Officer Viola M. Fisher with Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining and his wife, Maude, November 1956
Air University WAF statistics from the Report of Annual WAF Staff Directors Conference, November 1956
Nell "Johnnie" Phelps was a member of the LGBTQ community during World War II. After the war, she continued to fight for gay rights within the military.
"We Belong!" poster
As the 1960s progressed, Air Force women continued to face new opportunities and challenges. Public Law 90-130 was passed in 1967 which for the first time opened promotions of women to the general officer ranks and lifted the 2% cap on total forces. In June of that year, the first five enlisted WAFs were deployed to Vietnam to support the war effort in primarily administrative and medical roles with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V) Headquarters. All five faced hostile fire during the Tet Offensive in January of 1968 and when they came home, they faced protesters who spit on them. Air Force Captain Mary Klinker was one of the very last Americans killed in Vietnam when, in April of 1975, her plane crashed during the evacuation of orphans from Saigon.
While women were bravely serving on dangerous missions, they were still unrecognized as equals in so many areas. While stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in 1970, Lt. Sharon Frontiero was denied spousal benefits because she was female. With assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Frontiero sued, and her legal case, Frontiero v. Richardson, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court 8 to 1 in her favor. Other steps toward equality ranged from the selection of Cadet Sue Orkins as the first female wing commander of an ROTC detachment in 1971 to the Promotion of Jeanne M. Holm as the Air Force's first female general the same year.
In June 1967, the first five enlisted Women in the Air Force (WAF) and the fourth WAF officer to be assigned to Vietnam arrive at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam. The women on the stairs (left to right) are: Lt Col June H. Hilton, A1C Carol J. Hornick, A1C Rita M. Pitcock, SSgt Barbara J. Snavely, A1C Shirley J. Brown, and A1C Eva M. Nordstrom
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Public Law 90-130 on November 8, 1967, which opened promotions for women to general and flag ranks and removed the 2 percent ceiling on the number of women allowed on active duty
1st Lt Sharon Frontiero, who sued the government for the right to receive spousal benefits, in 1970
With General Jeanne Holm as the Director of WAF beginning in late 1965, major changes occurred due to her activism and the willingness of male leaders to accept her visions for gender integration. Many of the billets that had been closed off to females during the LeMay years were reopened. At Maxwell, as a sign of progress, Colonel Letha Willingham became the first graduate of Air War College in 1970. After President Ford signed Public Law 94-106, the first female cadets were finally allowed to enter the Air Force Academy in 1976.
The next step in eliminating gender discrimination was the abolishing of the separate WAF status in July of 1976. Due to a number of these initiatives, the numbers of women in Air Force went from less than 2% of the total force at the beginning of the decade to over 12% by 1980. And in a symbolic yet fully tangible development, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-202 in November 1977, which gave former WASPs veterans status.
Colonel Letha Willingham, first female Air War College student, with fellow AWC students, 1970
Essay by Colonel Letha Willingham titled "Analysis of Civilian Attitudes on a Voluntary Military Service in the Post-SEA Period and Some Philosophy to Support Recruitment of an All-Volunteer Force", January 1970
Female United States Air Force Academy cadets
The first ten female graduates of the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training Program, May 1977, Williams Air Force Base
A1C Tina Ponzer (left) and 1st Lt Patricia Fornes were two of the first women assigned as Air Force combat-ready missile crew members at McConnell Air Force Base in 1978
Lt Col Olga E. Custodio made U.S. military history by becoming the first Hispanic woman to complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training in 1981 and was the first female instructor for the Northrop T-38
The last several decades have seen great advancements in reducing gender discrimination throughout the Air Force. Congressional hearings where military members such as Air Force pilot Christine Prewitt led the Secretary of Defense to lift the combat exclusion for aviators in April 1993, and in another sign of change, Sheila Widnall became the first female Secretary of the Air Force that August. The success of Air Force women in the space program is evident in the careers of individuals such as Lt Col Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle, and Lt Gen Susan Helms, who holds the record for the longest spacewalk.
In February 1994, 1st Lt Jeannie Flynn (now Major General Jeannie Leavitt) became the service's first female fighter pilot later flying in combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Women have served in almost every role during the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several have suffered combat-related deaths such as A1C Elizabeth Jacobson, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra province in September of 2005, proving the level of commitment of all Airmen again, no matter what their gender, to their sworn duty.
While progress has occurred, it is still apparent that work needs to be done in areas of sexual assault and harassment, promotion parity at the higher rank levels, and policies to promote more beneficial maternity/paternity leave in order to raise retention levels for women in uniform. As the U.S. Air Force positions itself to counter new threats in the decades ahead, it is obvious that women's contributions to defending the nation need to be recognized and expanded for the future.
Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman to serve as Secretary of the Air Force and the first woman to lead a service of the U..S. military in 1993
On May 25, 1995, Major General Marcelite J. Harris became the first African American female general officer in the United States Air Force
A1C Elizabeth Nicole Jacobson, a member of the U.S. Air Force Security Forces, was killed in the Iraq War in 2005. Jacobson was the first Air Force Security Forces member killed in combat since the Vietnam War
General Janet Wolfenbarger, a graduate of the first class that admitted women at the United States Air Force Academy in 1980, became the United States Air Force's first female four-star general on June 5, 2012
Lt Col Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell joined the Civil Air Patrol at a young age and became the first African American female fighter pilot after graduating F-16 training in August of 2000
Enlisted RPA pilot
Major Rachael Winiecki and A1C Heather Rice; in 2018, Winiecki made history as the first female F-35 test pilot
General Maryanne Miller is currently the commander of Air Mobility Command. She was the first Air Force Reserve officer to achieve the rank of general, the first woman to serve as the Chief of Air Force Reserve, and is currently the only female four-star general officer in the U.S. military
A1C Autumn Hedrick-Cox, 384th AIr Refueling Squadron, computing the weight and balance of a KC-135, McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, July 23, 2013
MSgt Cassandra Doub and SSgt Andrew Perna repairing a runway at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan
SrA Rebecca Delay working on a vehicle at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan
Female Airmen dressed as the legendary Rosie the Riveter competing in the Rapid Aircraft Generation and Employment weapons-loading competition at Aviano Air Base, Italy
A1C Summer Toney, 1st Lt Ashley Guthrie, Cpt Kate Bufton, Cpt Emily Nelson, TSgt Lori Tascione, and SSgt Krysteena Scales were an all-female air crew in support of operations in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF)
SrA Rosie Munoz (left) and SrA Michelle Kendall exit to provide ground security for a 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron C-130 Hercules at a remote location in Iraq. Airmen Munoz and Kendall make up the only all-female 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron (ESFS) Fly Away Security Team (FAST)
Lt Col Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a Space Shuttle mission
Major Andrea Misener, Capt Jammie Jamieson, Major Carey Jones and Capt Samantha Weeks, F-15 Eagle pilots at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska
Iraq/Afghanistan veterans SMSgt Tiffany Jackson-Foster and MSgt Jessica Soto at Gunter
International officers Lt Col Andrea Mehes (Hungary) and Lt Col Marija Jovanovich (Australia) at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
President Obama signs S.614, a bill awarding members of the WASP program the Congressional Gold Medal, July 1, 2009
Chief Master Sgt. Joanne S. Bass was selected to become the 19th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, becoming the first woman in history to serve as the highest ranking noncommissioned member of a U.S. military service