Leadership: This Has Happened Before

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February 11, 2010: Much has been made of the progress of military women in the last few years, with female officers now commanding jet fighter squadrons, major warships and even carrier task forces. This is all the result of women being allowed into the service academies in the late 1970s. Over the subsequent  two decades, women were allowed into a growing number of combat jobs, including combat aircraft and warships. But this has all happened before, and then, in most cases, forgotten.

A major case in point is the U.S. Coast Guard. This force of coastal warships only belongs to the military during wartime. The rest of the time it belongs to the Department of Homeland Security (and before that the Treasury Department). As such, more practical rules were applied. Thus the first woman to command a warship was a coast guard officer in the 1990s. But even before that, women were running ships during World War II, when a shortage of men brought women into the navy, air force and coast guard as "auxiliaries." The urgent wartime demands led to women steering boats, and even commanding in a few cases (in the coast guard, naturally). Many women who grew up in coastal towns, where fishing, or other maritime activities were common, acquired boat handling skills that the coast guard and navy took advantage of. There was a war on, and there was a job to be done. Only the coast guard kept women on the job after World War II, in the Coast Guard Auxiliary. This force was often called up for natural disasters, when there was lots of dangerous work to be done. The coast guard never considered that the women were not up to the job.

In the air force, women were used for piloting combat aircraft from factory to airbase, sometimes to bases overseas, during World War II. These female pilots were considered civilian contractors, but some male pilots could not help but notice that many of these women were very good pilots. In Russia, the need for good pilots led to hundreds of women being put to work flying bombers and fighter in combat. But in Russia, as elsewhere, the women were removed from the ships and airplanes when the war was over. It took another three decades before the women regained in peacetime the jobs they had in wartime.

 


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