Post written by Scott Price, Coast Guard historian
The recent Compass post on the selection of Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz as the next superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy marked a historic occasion but brought up some questions on the history of the Coast Guard, its Academy, and the introduction of women to the Corps of Cadets. Since “first” exclamations draw considerable attention I’ve put together a timeline of events that led to the integration of the Class of 1980 in the summer of 1976. Below is a brief summary of those events and what in fact the Coast Guard may claim as “firsts.”
It may be hard for some to believe, given the overall success of integration efforts, there was a time not very long ago when women were restricted in what they were permitted to do if they wanted to serve their nation in uniform. They’ve only been able to serve in the active-duty and reserve components of the Coast Guard since December 5, 1973, when the separate Women’s Reserve was abolished. Even then, there were still limits to women’s service.
At that time, women were still barred from attending the service’s academy, from entering certain rates, and serving aboard cutters. Nonetheless, the elimination of the Women’s Reserve as a separate and distinct component was the watershed “Women’s Equality” event of the era for the Coast Guard. From that point forward, all remaining restrictions to women’s service were inevitably going to fall by the wayside—it was only a matter of time.
The social, cultural and political forces demanding equality for women had reached a national crescendo by the early 1970s and, after the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, changes came more quickly. Ratification seemed certain and with the open support of the Nixon Administration, institutional barriers to women’s service were targeted.
Efforts centered on the integration of the federal academies by the mid-1970s. The distinction of being the first federal academy to admit women belongs to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. They did so in 1974—two years ahead of the other service academies. The movement to admit women into America’s service academies had now begun in earnest. Members of Congress continually introduced bills to force the Naval Academy, West Point, and Air Force Academy to open their doors to women while other Congressmen introduced separate bills that would force open the doors of the Coast Guard Academy.
In late 1974 and early 1975, Coast Guard Academy Superintendent, Rear Adm. Bill Jenkins, upon orders of the Commandant, Adm. Chester Bender, established a planning committee to study the issue of integrating women into the corps of cadets—an issue they had been informally studying for a few years already.
On July 8, 1975, Congressman Lester R. Wolff of New York introduced H.R. 8414 that called for the admission of women to the Coast Guard Academy. Wolff’s efforts were communicated to William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, who asked the Commandant, Adm. Owen Siler, “Admiral, are there any really valid reasons why women should be kept out of the Coast Guard Academy?” Siler replied in the negative. Coleman then asked “Do we have to wait for Congress to act upon this?” Again, Adm. Siler responded in the negative.
On July 29, 1975, Representative Charles H. Wilson of California introduced H.R. 9011 “A Bill Relating to the Admission of Female Individuals to the Coast Guard Academy.” On the same day Wolff introduced H.R. 9013 with the same name as Congressman Wilson’s bill. Three similar bills introduced in less than two months—the Coast Guard (and DOT) needed to act on their own or Congress would force the issue. But the bureaucratic wheels were already in motion.
On August 11, 1975, the Department of Transportation issued a press release announcing Adm. Siler’s proclamation “that women will join the Corps of Cadets at New London” and noted that “his decision to admit women to the Academy was based on the many contributions he expected women to make in the peacetime missions of the Coast Guard.” To placate Congress, “he noted that current statutes do not bar the admission of women to the Coast Guard Academy and that action by Congress will not be required. This decision is also in keeping with the strong commitment of the leadership of the Department of Transportation to assure equal rights for women.”
The other service academies followed suit on October, 7 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-106 (DOD Authorization Act) that carried an attached rider which authorized the admission of women into the other three armed service academies, two months after the Coast Guard made their announcement.
On February 3, 1976, the Coast Guard Academy announced the first round of appointments for the Class of 1980, and the list included three women. The Coast Guard News Release announcing the appointments proudly stated: “Of the four largest federal service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard) the Coast Guard Academy is the first to offer an appointment to a woman.”
So the Coast Guard may legitimately claim two “firsts” regarding the introduction of women to federal armed service academies:
1) They were the first to open the application process to women.
2) They were the first to issue appointments to women.
The Academy cannot claim to be the first to have women become part of the Corps since the Class of 1980 reported to New London the same day as cadets at the Air Force Academy on June 28, 1976.
One factor to take into account regarding the success of these efforts though and one that is often overlooked is the pragmatism, foresight, professionalism, and devotion to duty of the Coast Guard’s senior leadership. Although many privately (and some even publicly) admitted they did not agree with the integration efforts at the Academy, they still implemented, with minimal disruption to the service’s abilities to fulfill its missions, the new policies as mandated by their civilian leaders.
Click here to view a more detailed timeline.