WASPs: A Case For Equal Rights

Women Airforce Service Pilotsby Dora

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.


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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9 Responses

  1. kew says:

    I love the stories of the WASPs. Earlies this week I sat next to a man on a plane whose mother-in-law had been a WASP.

  2. Caroline says:

    The story of the WASPs is both inspiring and shameful. I heard the interview on NPR last week, and I was horrified that these women pilots didn’t receive military benefits and that their story was sealed up for so long.

    We have indeed come a long way in some ways (thank goodness). Thanks for this post, Dora.

  3. Davis says:

    I don’t know where you went to school, but I learned about them in school in the early 80s. I do believe that these women deserve more credit, but your post does not give the full story. Many of them did not work for the Government. Many of them were actually employed by the aircraft manufacturers and contracted for the Government in the WASP program.

    Like I said, I think these women deserve more, but their situation is not as black and white as you imply. Just as today, Contractual obligations sometimes limited what the Government could do.

  4. Dora says:

    Davis, if you have a better sources of data, and can it them, I would be really appreciate it. As for myself, I actually attended a gifted magnet high school that had an emphasis on math and science. However, I am glad to know that you had the opportunity to learn about how women had such a great impact during the WW II efforts.

    As it is, it seems to me that the US conduct in regards to these women, in the aftermath of WW II, is shameful. If it were not so, there should have been no need to disband the WASP or classify and seal their records. One could say, given the social mores of the time, that it was just part of the paternaliztic culture that existed back them. However, it is still no less pathetic.

  5. Alisa says:

    Great post, Dora, about something I never knew but find completely interesting. When I listened to the NPR coverage, I was encouraged by how gracious the WASP on the program was. It made me think that while a lot of my struggles based on my womanhood can get me down and leave me frustrated, I hope that in the end I will always learn to make peace with the world and show a lot of grace, no matter the unfair actions of others. Funny thing to get from this story, but it just really inspired me.

  6. Davis says:


    As much as I normally hate Wikipedia, it has as good a summary about the WASP program as anywhere.

    The only thing classified about the WASP program was the specific missions each woman flew. While their records were not openly accessible, the existence of the program was never hidden. I had an aunt that was a WAVE and another that was a WAAC during the war. All of these programs have always been common knowledge – just not very publicized.

    This entire exercise in giving them the Congressional Gold Medal is in my view a cop out. The WASPs were awarded full military status in the late 70s. The Congressional Gold Medal is a civilian award. It is a slap in the face not to give them a Military award.

  7. chelseaw says:

    I love WASP stories! My great-grandmother was a WAC (I have a newspaper article about it – she served at the same time as 2 of her sons) but I don’t know what specifically she did. I’ll have to ask my grandfather about that.

  8. Dora says:

    Alisa ~ Yes, graciousness is an amazing social lubricant … even more so when it is authentic. Generally, I wish correct principles would win out without the need for playing to the insecurities and faults of those in power. However, graciousness does help smooth the way and make things easier to swallow. It’s something I aspire to.

    Yes, Davis, I read the wikipedia article. It states, “All records of the WASP were classified and sealed for 35 years, so their contributions to the war effort were little known and inaccessible to historians for many years.” Are there different methods to classify and seal governmental/military records? I wonder how this compares to other events which the government has seen to fit to deny transparency to.

    I’m also unsure of the appropriateness of calling the Congressional medal a, “slap in the face.” Apparently Deanie (former WASP) and Nancy (her daughter) Parrish have been trying to get this awarded for about a decade, and thought it a worthwhile cause. No doubt they were helped by Malachowski’s proximity to the White House.

    Chelseaw ~ How amazing that your greatgrandmother served as a WAC at the same time as her sons! Good luck in finding out more about this fascinating period in your family history!

  9. While all 1,100 WASP will be deservedly be awarded the gold medal, we must take special note of the most special honorees – the 38 women who died while serving during World War II.

    Mabel Rawlinson was one of the 38 WASP that made the ultimate sacrifice. She will receive her medal posthumously.

    It was at Camp Davis on the night of August 23, 1943, that Mabel lost her life when her airplane crashed and was consumed by flames. She became one of the very special women, numbering only 38, who served and died as pilots for the Air Force in World War II.

    Since WASP were technically considered volunteer civilian pilots and not Air Force pilots, no monetary compensation was available to the Rawlinson family for her funeral expenses.

    The other female pilots at Camp Davis pooled their extra money and assisted in the expense of transporting Mabel’s casket back to Kalamazoo for burial.

    Read the whole story here:


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