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Women’s history is not just about ‘firsts’

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Women’s history is not just about ‘firsts’

Apr 15, 2024 | 5:30 am ET
By Eileen Bjorkman
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Women’s history is not just about ‘firsts’
Description
U.S. Air Force pilots assigned to the 310th Fighter Squadron, walk to their jets, March 5, 2024, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. In honor of Women’s History Month, the 310th FS organized an all-women flight crew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mason Hargrove)

Editor’s note: Eileen Bjorkman is scheduled to sign copies of her book, “The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat,” in the Arnold Hall Lobby at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs from 10-11:30 a.m. on April 19.

During this past month, aka Women’s History Month, my social media filled with tributes to women who were the first in their field to accomplish something: the first woman physician in the U.S. or the first woman to fly an aircraft solo around the world. As a retired Air Force officer and chronicler of military history, I’ve made quite a few of these posts myself.

But a woman who breaks a barrier often stands on the shoulders of thousands of women who came before her. Celebrating Women’s History Month by focusing on women who were the first to accomplish something ignores the larger mass of women who have produced lasting changes in society.

Toiling in the anonymous “masses” was one of my great aunts, Florence Eighmy. She operated a flight simulator as a U.S. Army private during World War II and is buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver. In 1944, Florence left her quiet life in Wisconsin to became one of the more than 350,000 women who served in the U.S. armed forces during the war in roles other than nursing.

Except for nurses, the women who served were supposed be discharged when the war ended. Instead, the impressive performance of the mass of women like my aunt led to a permanent presence for women in the U.S. military.

U.S. military leadership, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, wanted to keep a small number of female non-nurses in the military as a base to build on if needed again for a future emergency, and they convinced Congress to pass a law in 1948 to do just that.

This scenario of a mass of women gradually opening doors has been repeated across many disciplines formerly closed or all-but-closed to women, including medicine, law, and other aspects of aviation.

However, the number of women who served in the U.S. military from the end of World War II through the early 1970s was small. The 1948 law limited women to less than 2% of the overall force of around 3 million men. But that 2% still translated into tens of thousands of women, and it was this mass, not individual “firsts,” that gradually convinced military leadership and Congress to make women more equal, from allowing women to remain on active duty if they became pregnant to training women for nontraditional career fields such as aircraft maintenance and piloting aircraft.

But even though women had made significant strides in the military by the early 1970s, they didn’t achieve total equality, in part because the 1948 law also restricted women from engaging the enemy in a combat aircraft and serving on a combat ship. Many more thousands of women of my generation, who stood on the shoulders of the previous generation, proved themselves during the 1970s and 1980s by flying noncombat aircraft, sitting alert in missile silos, and participating in military operations that at times turned into combat situations.

Congress finally repealed the combat exclusion law in 1991 when it became obvious that women could perform at any role in the military, and the law wasn’t keeping women from combat anyway. Even then, the Department of Defense needed two more years before women began training for combat roles.

This scenario of a mass of women gradually opening doors has been repeated across many disciplines formerly closed or all-but-closed to women, including medicine, law, and other aspects of aviation. Given their numbers, the vast majority of these women’s stories will never be told.

But even without these stories, it is possible to appreciate and celebrate what women have accomplished as a group. I suggest we do more of that.