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Female Firsts: Pioneering Women Veterans through the Years

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The following is a guest blog post by Andrew Huber, a Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). This is the third post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the VHP archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.

The story of women in the military is a story of firsts. Women have only been allowed to serve in permanent positions in the military since 1948, and even then were limited in what roles they could perform.  Over the years, women have fought for and gained the right to serve as equals piece by piece, with every new door opened bringing a new opportunity to be the “first woman to…”

Black and white photo of woman in US military uniform.
Janet Kovatch in uniform. Janet Sue Williamson Kovatch Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/38465.

Air Force veteran Janet Kovatch summed up what many female veterans undoubtedly experienced on the front lines of the war for equality when she said in her VHP interview:

Most of my stress, I think, was being a woman in a man’s world in a time when we were all trying to prove ourselves, feeling that internal pressure of having to do things bigger and better because we were blazing a trail.

See Kovatch’s full VHP collection here.

Black and white photo of woman in uniform with US Coast Guard Academy hat.
Holly Harrison in uniform. Holly R. Harrison Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/00146660.

One woman on those front lines was Holly Harrison. Born to a Marine officer father and a Navy officer mother, military service was in her blood, though she forged her own path and applied to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Academy after high school. She was denied on her first attempt due to poor vision, but after an administrative change loosened the eyesight requirements, she reapplied and was accepted.

Eleven years and two Cutters later, Harrison was the commanding officer of the USCGC Aquidneck, and was deployed to the Khawr Abd Allah waterway off the coast of Iraq with a mission to protect United States vessels, and to stop the flow of contraband to terrorist groups and embargoed oil out of the middle east. The waters she patrolled were uncharted, shallow and mined, but despite the dangers, she and her crew accomplished their mission, and made it back home unscathed. For her excellence and bravery in a combat zone, Harrison became the first female recipient of the Bronze Star in the entire USCG.  See her full VHP collection here.

Color photo of woman in the desert kneeling by a rocket.
Lee Lane kneels next to a rocket that was fired at her helicopter. Lee Ingrid Papanek Lane Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress AFC2001/001/47372.

At the same time Harrison was breaking barriers on the water, Army veteran Lee Lane was making waves in the air. A thrill seeker since birth, Lane blazed a trail to become the first female pilot in the Illinois National Guard. Her missions flying rotary wing aircraft took her all over Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying both in combat zones and on routine transportation routes. Contrary to many pioneers, in her 10 years with the 106th Aviation Regiment, she did not have a hard time fitting in with her peers. In fact, Lane said she was quickly accepted as “one of the boys,” and describes her relationships with fellow Guardsmen as some of the closest she has ever had. Here you can listen to her interview and see more than two dozen of her original photos, some taken while airborne.

Looking back at World War II, U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) veteran Veronica Bradley was part of the very first class of women to graduate from training and become Marines.  She and her classmates had signed up the instant they heard the USMC was accepting female recruits; the program was so new, it didn’t have a boot camp or even uniforms ready for them! The women were trained at a makeshift facility at Hunter College, where Bradley learned how to repair aircraft. After graduating, the USMC still hadn’t been able to produce uniforms designed for women. In her VHP interview, Bradley recalls how this sometimes got her and her squad mates into trouble:

They weren’t prepared for women somehow or other, and we had to wear men’s fatigues. And I think the crotch was down to your knees. And I remember the officer saying, you know, ‘Attention,’ and then one of the girls—he went to one of the girls and said, ‘I said attention.’ And she said, ‘I am, sir, I’m at attention. My clothes are at ease.’ They were just so baggy.

Color photo of woman standing in front of "Be A Marine. Free A Man to Fight" poster
Veronica Bradley in front of the poster she unknowingly modeled for during WWII. Veronica Bradley Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/76149.

Bradley served three years in the Marines, and provided an incredibly valuable service keeping United States aircraft flying during the war.  And yes, she did eventually get a uniform that fit her! In fact, she got to show off that uniform to the whole country when she unknowingly was featured on a recruiting poster for the Marines. Bradley capped off a career full of accomplishment by being inducted into the National Women’s History Museum in Washington DC. Read a transcript of her fascinating interview here.

Women have a storied history in the military, full of triumphs, but also struggles and setbacks.  Those featured in this blog post barely scratch the surface of what “the fairer sex” has endured and accomplished. As VHP’s Women’s History Month blog series continues, you will learn about even more ways that women have contributed, perhaps more than their fair share, to the defense of our country.

Comments (2)

  1. We salute you ladies for your work as a woman getti!
    US AF. 79-83

  2. We salute you ladies for your work as a woman VET
    US AF. 79-83

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