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Female Firsts: Pioneering Women Veterans through the Years

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…”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military

The following is the second post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month. (Note: Due to the closure of all DC-area Federal Government buildings on March 2, 2018, the Women’s History Month book talk  featuring Liza Mundy  has been canceled. Stay […]

Shooting War – Framing History, Part III

The following is the third of a three-part blog post focusing on Military Photographers. You can read the original post HERE and the second post HERE. During the tremendous upheaval of the 1960s and with the Vietnam War in full effect, the country was in desperate need of emotive displays of patriotism while still accurately recording […]

What is a Veteran?

The following is a guest blog post by Kerry Ward, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). As this Veterans Day approaches, I find myself really pondering the word “veteran,” and all it encompasses. If you ask most people to describe what they visualize as “veteran” comes up, chances are many will envision a white-haired, Caucasian […]

Happy Birthday to our U.S. Navy!

The following is a guest blog post by Kerry Ward, a liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). Predating even the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Navy was commissioned in 1775 by the Continental Congress.  Starting with a small anti-piracy force with two ships [i], the U.S. Navy now is the largest navy in […]

Hispanic American Heritage Month

The following is a guest blog post by Andrew Huber, Liaison Specialist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP). As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month through October 15, VHP continues to recognize the contributions of Hispanics and Latinos throughout the military history of our country. Hispanic and Latino Americans have fought in every […]

Honored and Blessed: My Summer Spent with Arkansas Veterans

The following is a guest post by Victoria Anderson, a summer intern in Sen. John Boozman’s (AR) Little Rock office. History may seem like a row of dusty old books sitting on a shelf, something people pass over because it looks boring, but I want to remind everyone that it is not. History is living […]

VHP: Missing The Stories

The following is a guest blog post by Hope O’Keeffe, an attorney in the Library’s Office of General Counsel, and an ardent supporter of the Veterans History Project (VHP). I come from a long line of heroes. They may be gone, but their stories linger and echo. My grandfather, John McLaughlin, never told us war […]

CSU-MB (and Fort Ord) Goes to Washington

Although we often don’t like to admit it, much in life comes down to chance, luck and serendipitous encounters. In April 2014, I attended a panel presentation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, on the area’s military history. One of the presenters was Enid Baxter Ryce, an artist, filmmaker […]

PTSD: A Lasting Impact of War

The following is a guest blog post by Rachel Telford, Archivist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP). A version of this article was previously published on the Library of Congress Blog, March 6, 2017. “…In January of ’06 for the very first time in my life, I went to the VA and […]