On this important date for women in the military – the anniversary of the SPARs – the Coast Guard celebrates all of these trailblazing women by highlighting the noteworthy efforts of Capt. Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer.
Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein, 7th Coast Guard District Public Affairs.
Frustrated by her clerical work as a civilian in 1944, Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer volunteered to join the Coast Guard in Boston, in the midst of her workday at Boston Edison Company.
“I went for a walk at the suggestion of my boss and came back a member of the Coast Guard,” she said beaming, some seven decades later.
L’Ecuyer, 90, served as a pharmacist’s mate at Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, Wash., until her discharge in 1946. While many women made their personal marks upon the Coast Guard, L’Ecuyer, an articulate gal with a sharp wit, forever impacted policies and increased opportunities for women serving in the Coast Guard.
Following her discharge after the war, L’Ecuyer returned to Boston, activating her G.I. Bill benefits and earning a law degree at Suffolk University. But finding employment as a female attorney proved challenging against the backdrop of 1950. Marriage and birthrates were increasing in post-war America. A postage stamp cost $.03, a dozen eggs $.65, the average household income was
$3, 216 and the average home cost $14, 500. While nearly one million women entered the workforce each year, most found employment in the clerical field.
Employment prospects in law looked bleak, but thumbing through the newspaper one day, an ad caught L’Ecuyer’s attention. It sought Coast Guard veterans for direct commission, who had received additional specialty training in the post-war years. However, L’Ecuyer was told by recruiters, the ad applied to males only. Undaunted, she made her case.
“They let me take the test anyway, thinking I’d fail,” she said.
A few months passed while the venerable L’Ecuyer took a slew of physical exams. Ironically, on Apr. 1, 1951, she received two letters bearing good news.
“First I learned I’d passed the Coast Guard test,” she said. “Later that day, I learned I’d passed the Massachusetts Bar.”
Ensign L’Ecuyer was told she’d received a commission, but women could not attend Officer Candidate School. “Eventually, someone realized I was a lawyer, and I was promoted to lieutenant junior grade,” she said.
Assigned to Washington, D.C., she became the first female attorney hired by the United States Coast Guard, though she did not directly serve in that role. Her legal training would serve her – and future generations of female Coasties – very well. She wrote successful challenges to several policies that would increase career potential for women in the Coast Guard. One was her determination that being pregnant was not a disabling condition and therefore, should not be grounds for discharging women. Another was that couples should be allowed to co-locate. Another challenge she filed questioned the policy limiting women to serving only 20 years.
“After that one, the commandant asked if I had any other paperwork I might want to follow,” said L’Ecuyer, smiling.
She served until 1971, rising to the rank of captain – the highest rank a woman could achieve at the time. She also holds the distinction of being the longest serving SPAR. Yet, when asked if she realized how her determinations had impacted future generations, she turned reflective.
“It was the right thing to do, and the time had come” she said. “I put my law degree to good use.”
L’Ecuyer made another – perhaps more visible – impact on the Coast Guard. In the 1970s, she was responsible for upgrading women’s uniforms, which had not been revamped although the men’s uniforms had. A stylish change to the timeworn Navy style came about after she contacted a friend working in Hollywood The result was a meeting between L’Ecuyer and eight-time Academy-award winning costume designer, Edith Head. Though L‘Ecuyer went to Hollywood on her own time, and Head agreed to re-design the uniforms free of charge, the effort raised a few eyebrows.
“My boss said, a bit angrily, ‘I doubt we can afford that,’” she recalled. “I simply told him, ‘I don’t know why not, she’s agreed to do it free of charge’. And then it was done,” she said.
L’Ecuyer retired prior to implementation of the stylish tailoring changes, but recalled working with the famed costume designer.
“We sat on the floor of her Hollywood office looking through photographs I’d brought,” she said. “I remember the sketch pad, the scraps of material and the mannequins,” she said. “Suddenly, there was a knock at her door. Miss Head reminded her secretary that she’d been told to hold all calls,” said L’Ecuyer. “’But it’s Katie Hepburn on the phone,’ said the secretary.”
Head took the call, but spent ample time sketching her ideas for Coast Guard uniform changes, tucking her feet under her as L’Ecuyer explained the photos. She recalls the racing stripe on Coast Guard cutters caught the eye of the celebrity costume designer. That led to the inclusion of a smart light blue ascot with the signature Coast Guard racing stripe. Other changes included the addition of a light blue, short-sleeved polyester top with gold-tone buttons, pockets and a sewn-on belt in the back.
“She was fascinating…definitely one of the more interesting people I met while in the Coast Guard,” said L’Ecuyer.
L’Ecuyer made her most indelible mark on policies regulating the service of women. At the time, she made a few waves, but forever impacted women serving the nation’s oldest continuous seagoing service. “That,” said the Sun City Center, Fla., resident “makes me proud.”
Like the SPARs, of which she was a loyal member, L’Ecuyer’s legacy is worth noting.
Author’s note: The perseverance of women such as Capt. Eleanor L’Ecuyer has made it so much easier for women to serve. On this week of Thanksgiving, and as a member of the Coast Guard Reserve myself, I offer my personal gratitude for her groundbreaking efforts.