No one said it would be easy.
While the U.S. military has stood guard and fought wars at home and on foreign shores for nearly 250 years, women have been fighting nearly as long to not only serve their nation in uniform, but to get equal footing and acceptance as members of the armed forces.
It’s been a slow go, but they’ve never given up.
“When I enlisted in the Navy, there were only 22 jobs for women to choose from,” said Peg Trout, a USS Midway Museum volunteer with more than 2,300 volunteer hours who joined the Navy in 1970 working in aviation maintenance. “It’s wonderful that all jobs are now open to women. It has taken from World War II until just the last few years for that to happen. But women have proven themselves and should be offered the opportunity to do a job they like, including combat-related roles.”
The first women to officially serve in the U.S. Navy were 20 nurses – known as the “Sacred Twenty” – following the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. It took another 66 years until the first female Navy pilot was awarded her wings of gold in 1974. Women were finally permitted to serve on Navy combatant ships in 1994. Today, women serve their country in every Navy rank from seaman to admiral and in every job from pilot to submariner.
“When I joined, women weren’t always popular or wanted in the Navy by some because the overwhelming majority of women didn’t go to sea,” said Hope Andrews, a Californian who served four years as a yeoman in the mid-1970s and began volunteering as a docent on the Midway in 2010. “I believe just like a man, if a woman has the capability to do the job she should be able to compete for it.”
The achievements of women are hailed every March during Women’s History Month, and within the military, the hard-fought successes of women who have and continue to triumph as trailblazers in the uninformed services are also celebrated.
“My dad raised me with the wisdom that I could do anything I set my mind to,” said Catherine Flores, a nearly 800-hour Midway volunteer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who spent 10 years in the Navy as a torpedoman’s mate. “I still believe that today. You should not be prejudiced that females can only cook and clean. We have and will continue to prove we are amazing and resilient.”
Dianne Wilkie, a 20-year Army vocational nurse and New York native whose family has roots in the military dating back to the Spanish American War, admits there were some very difficult times but wouldn’t have done it differently. “In a post-Vietnam War male-orientated field environment, the challenges were too hard to describe, but the Army provided a structured environment and foundation in which to build a civilian career.”
“My time in the Navy was well spent and I look back on that period of my life with pride,” said Hope, who recently retired as a lieutenant following 30 years with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
The USS Midway was decommissioned before women were allowed to serve on combat ships, however, as a naval museum, women are now critical members of the ship’s staff and volunteer team. Women are directly responsible for much of the success enjoyed by the Midway, ranked as the fifth best museum in the United States.
“I like watching the faces light up when you interact with any guest especially those with special needs,” said Catherine, who currently works in the comptroller’s office at the 12th Marine Corps District. “Can’t think of a better place to be than on Midway.”
While on active duty, Peg Trout wasn’t permitted to serve on combat ships. She’s now catching up for lost time.
“My number one request would have been to serve on an aircraft carrier, but women were not yet allowed to serve on ships in the 1970s,” said Peg, an Ohio native who spent 26 years teaching and coaching middle school students after leaving the Navy. “But now I have an emotional attachment to the Midway. My dream came true. I get to serve on an aircraft carrier.”
As trailblazers for women in the military, Peg, Hope, Catherine and Dianne not only opened doors for women who currently serve, but are now treasures for Midway.
“I like being in a military environment and interacting with the guests to give them a better understanding of what it was like to serve on an aircraft carrier,” said Dianne, who spent nearly 15 years as registered nurse in the postpartum ward at Naval Medical Center San Diego following her retirement from the Army. “The Midway is like a new baby that I get to watch and grow.”