WASPs: A Case For Equal Rights
Women Airforce Service Pilots. In a long overdue ceremony, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on July 1, 2009. What? You’ve never heard of them? Not too surprising, since their records were classified and sealed for 35 years.
I’ve always had a strong affinity for capable people. Those who see a need they can fill, do it well, and without whining. World War II women had these qualities in spades. As more and more of the male workforce enlisted to serve overseas, the women at home stepped up to fill the gap. This was a two-pronged approach, since the Allies’ efforts depended as much on battlefield confrontations as it did on industrial production. When else had any of these women previously worked in a factory, in a ship building yard, in DC government jobs, played on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, or flown military craft? During the war, nineteen million women worked on the home front.
As early as 1942, women were ferrying planes for the US Airforce. The predecessor groups were combined on August 5, 1943 into the
Women Airforce Service Pilots. These remarkable women ferried planes, performed test flights on refurbished planes, towed targets for live ammunition practice, and taught their male counterparts to fly.
1078 earned their wings. 38 died during missions. They did not get medals. Their families didn’t get a gold star to put in their windows. They did not get flags put on their coffins. They did not even get free transport home. Their families and female co-pilots footed the bills to send these fallen heroes home. They were considered civil servants, and didn’t receive the military benefits that their students were given.
This is the stuff of dreams. But I never heard any of this in my US History classes. With the draft looming, civilian male pilots lobbied against a House bill to give the WASPs military status. The bill was narrowly defeated in June 1944. In December, the WASPs were disbanded. Their history was classified, and the records were sealed for thirty five years. It wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs were accorded full military status. It wasn’t until the first of this month, with Nicole Malachowski (first female Thunderbird) as a White House fellow, that the bill was introduced and signed, to give the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal (be sure to listen to the interview), and the recognition that they so fully deserve.
After the war, as the men started trickling back, women again took a professional back seat. Witness the 50’s and 60’s. But it’s hard to stuff women back into a bottle. Today women account for nearly 60% of college enrollment. Professionally, women are found in nearly every niche of the job market that men are. Oh, it’s not perfect, not by a long shot. But it’s getting better.