U.S. military combat roles are open to women with “no exceptions,” announced Defense Secretary Ashton Carter just last month. Getting here hasn’t been easy. Over 70 years ago, women flew military planes for the first time.
Faced with a dearth of pilots during World War II, the US turned to women to fly military aircraft to release men for combat abroad. The little-known Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP finished their service with flying records equal to and in some categories better than those of male pilots. In each new military role, women have had to prove themselves overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to make progress.
The WASP program generated considerable interest among women. Some 25,000 applied and a little over 1,000 were accepted. WASP flew nearly every kind of military aircraft; they ferried new planes straight from factories to bases, test-flew repaired aircraft and even towed targets for gunnery practice. Although they performed military duties, they were officially civilians, and as such, received no insurance, death or veteran benefits. Thirty-eight died in service, often forcing the WASP to gather donations among themselves to send their colleagues home.
Today as women break new ground graduating from the Army Ranger School for the first time, we need to appreciate how tenuous the initial steps toward progress were. This means grappling with the gender and racial prejudices of the past.
In the 1940s, the WASP first began chipping away at ingrained stereotypes about women’s lack of focus and stamina. The head of the program, Jacqueline Cochran, concluded in her final report that WASP were “as efficient and effective” as male pilots and “had as much endurance.” The Commanding General of the Army Air Forces at the time, H. H. Arnold, concurred. Despite having wondered “whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17,” he announced that it was “on the record that women can fly as well as men.”
Unfortunately, the program stopped short of full equality. It was not immune to endemic racism in the United States armed forces. African American women were barred from entry, but despite being denied this opportunity, African American female pilots made their own integral contributions to the war effort. The activism of aviator Willa Brown, for example, was instrumental in launching the Tuskegee Airmen and integrating the Air force.
The WASP program ended in 1944 after only two years in large part due to a smear campaign undertaken by male pilots who felt that women were taking their jobs; the WASP were refused military status by Congress and disbanded.
Many were eager to continue flying but found it difficult. Not able to get a job in the aviation industry, former WASP Bernice “Bee” Haydu, now 95 years old, realized “I was going to have to do it on my own.” She became a freelance flight instructor, established a ferrying business and eventually went on to be co-owner in a flight school, but hers is a rare story.
A few decades after the war, the WASP decided to lobby for military status. As these efforts began, the US armed forces announced in the mid-1970s that women would fly military aircraft for the first time. Angered, the WASP began to lobby forcefully for recognition and military status. In 1977, they achieved it, and in 2010 they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Most recently, the WASP’s eligibility to have their ashes laid in Arlington National Cemetery was repealed; a congressional effort striving to reverse this is underway.
Despite the last setback, the Gold Medal inched this story back into view. In 2009, soon after President Obama signed the bill awarding the medal, articles appeared and television series featured the WASP. Though it may seem trivial, popular culture dramatizes history in a way that traditional historical analysis does not. An Army Wives episode entitled “As Time Goes By” featured a WASP as a feisty adventurous character. Cold Case, in the episode “WASP,” showcased the sexism female pilots faced, which, in some cases, may have led to the sabotage of their planes by male pilots.
Over the years, however, portrayal of the WASP in popular culture has been rare and uneven. In a 1945 film, Ladies Courageous, the WASP are anything but brave; they fight over men and with each other. In contrast, the 2008 movie Warbirds pays homage to the WASP with accurate details on the women’s uniforms and lines like “my girls received the same training male pilots have.” But it’s a sci-fi flic and oddly devolves into a battle between the WASP and dinosaur-like monsters.
Fortunately, a show devoted to the WASP is in the works and promises to be a labor of love.
I spoke with Director Matia Karrell and Producer Hilary Prentice of the Fly Girls dramatic mini-series. They are in regular touch with former WASP, giving them the opportunity to present their side of the story, but Karrell specified that the show will look, not just at the women who flew, but the women who weren’t allowed to fly, like African American pilots. Karrell is aiming to portray the sweeping history in which female pilots played a key role. The US was becoming a world power and with that came the promise of equality, regrettably curtailed by the war’s end.
The WASP, like today’s Army Rangers, took a critical step towards creating equal opportunities in the armed forces. We need to explore this from the point of view of the women who lived it. But we should be weary of separating out women’s experience. Instead, it should be seamlessly integrated into our history.
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