Today is Women’s Equality Day – a day to commemorate the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a substantial, but peaceful civil rights movement led by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.
This year marks 40 years since the Coast Guard Academy opened its doors to women. But even before women could enlist in the reserves or regular service, or become active duty officers, women have had a long history in the organization and have played a key role in shaping our Coast Guard.
Let’s take time today to remember our Coast Guard history and some of the women who paved the way!
Here’s a brief rundown of when women became part of the Coast Guard throughout the years, as well as their roles and contributions. (This list has been significantly abbreviated for the blog; go here to read more about women in the Coast Guard).
Lighthouse keepers stood watch:
- In the 1830s, women were first officially assigned as keepers in the Lighthouse Service although many wives and daughters of keepers had previously served as keepers when their husbands or fathers became ill. Civilian women continued as lighthouse keepers until 1947.
- From 1859 to 1862 Maria Andreu served as the Keeper of the St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida, becoming the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard and the first Hispanic-American woman to oversee a federal shore installation.
- In 1881, Lime Rock Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis became the first woman to be awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal for the rescue of two soldiers who had broken through thin ice near Lime Rock Light. Lewis served unofficially as keeper of Lime Rock Light beginning in 1857 and officially as keeper from 1879 until her death in 1911.
- Light keepers frequently risked their lives to save the shipwrecked or others in danger of drowning. Civilian women served as lighthouse keepers until 1947, and today the names of Mabrity, Burgess, Walker, and Lewis grace four of the Coast Guard’s “Keeper”-class buoy tenders. Unfortunately, the story countless other female lighthouse keepers remains largely unknown to the American public.
The Women’s Reserves was created:
- In 1941, the Coast Guard hired its first civilian women to serve in secretarial and clerical positions.
- In 1942, the Women’s Reserve of the U. S. Coast Guard Reserve program (officially nicknamed the “SPARs” for Semper Paratus, Always Ready), was established. Lt. Cmdr. Dorothy Stratton transferred from the Navy WAVES to serve as the director of the SPARs. A total of 978 women officers and 11,868 enlisted women served in the SPARs during World War II. Women proved they could serve in virtually all ratings, and by war’s end, SPARs held 43 ratings from Boatswain’s Mate to Yeoman.
- In February 1945, Olivia Hooker was sworn into the Service, becoming the first African-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform. Hooker had tried to join the WAVES, but was rejected due to her ethnicity. She applied to the Coast Guard, where she completed her basic training in March of 1945. She attended yeoman school for next nine weeks and spent the rest of her service time in Boston. Hooker was one of five African-American women who became enlisted SPARs.
- On January 31, 1948, Mrs. Fannie Mae Salter, keeper of the Turkey Point Lighthouse in upper Chesapeake Bay since 1925 and the last woman keeper of a lighthouse in the United States, retired from active service. This ended nearly 150 years during which women were employed as keepers of United States’ lighthouses.
- On November 1, 1949, the authority to reestablish the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves (SPARs), approved by the President on August 4, 1949, became effective.
- In 1951, Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer rejoined the Coast Guard after serving in as a SPAR during World War II. Prior to her rejoining, she earned a law degree, and was commissioned as an ensign upon her reentry into the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. She was assigned to Washington, D.C., and became the first female attorney hired by the Coast Guard, although she did not directly serve in that role. Her legal training served her – and future generations of female Coast Guardsmen – 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. She served until 1971, rising to the rank of captain. She holds the distinction of being the longest serving SPAR.
Enlisted ranks open to women:
- On April 10, 1972 the Commandant, Admiral Chester Bender, established an official board “to determine the need for permanent women officers in the regular Coast Guard.” The board concluded in their report submitted in May, 1972 that: 1) “No need for regular women officers in specific billets currently exists in the Coast Guard except in cases where a male applicant with adequate qualifications is not available. This requirement in itself does not justify initiation of a program at this time. In fact, a program of such small size is not desirable; 2) Nevertheless, considering all factors, it is in the overall best interest of the Coast Guard to begin a controlled women officer program with provisions for integration into the regular Coast Guard included; 3); Planning and execution of a women officer program in the Coast Guard is overdue.
- On December 7, 1973 the first female enlistees were sworn into the regular U.S. Coast Guard: Wanda May Parr and Margaret A. Blackman at a ceremony held in Yorktown, VA. On that date as well CWO Alice T. Jefferson became the first woman commissioned officer to be sworn into the regular U.S. Coast Guard. Jefferson was sworn in by Admiral Chester Bender, Commandant, at a ceremony held at Coast Guard Headquarters. She retired in 1984 with 24 years of service. CWO4 Jefferson had joined the SPARs in 1943, was discharged in 1945 and returned to service in 1963.
- The first group of women ever enlisted as “Regulars” reported to Cape May on January 15, 1974.
- In April of 1974, Karen F. Rovinsky became the first woman assigned to a patrol boat with the New York Captain of the Port. She was assigned to a 40-foot patrol boat after attending boat operators school in Yorktown, VA.
- Marlene DeTienne earned her coxswain rating in 1975 becoming one of the first active-duty women to do so. She was the first woman to make BM3 by striking. She later became the first female active-duty BM1 in the Coast Guard and the first woman to attend Law Enforcement school.
Women enter Officer Candidate School:
- In February, 1973 the first women since 1945 were admitted to Officer Candidate School (OCS). Within the ranks of OCS Class 2-73 were the first five female officer candidates. These women trained on board the Cutter Unimak. It was the first time in Service history that women trained on board a cutter alongside their male counterparts. On June 8, 1973, the twenty-nine strong OCS Class 2-73 graduated from the training center at Yorktown, including the five female graduates. In 1975, two years after these first females graduated OCS, the Service had 32 female officers.
- On June 5, 1975 ENS Thomasania Montgomery and ENS Linda Rodriguez graduated from Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, becoming the first African-American female commissioned officers in the Coast Guard.
Women enter the Coast Guard Academy:
- On August 11, 1975 a Department of Transportation press release noted that the Commandant, ADM Owen Siler, announced “that women will join the Corps of Cadets at New London…Admiral Siler said his decision to admit women to the Academy was based on the many contributions he expected women to make in the peace-time missions of the Coast Guard…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.” An article in the CGA Alumni Bulletin noted that the Academy “thus becomes the first of the armed forces to open its doors to women.”
- On June 28, 1976, the class of 1980 swabs reported to the Academy, including 38 women. It was the first time a military academy offered an appointment to women. Of the original 38 Class of 1980 female cadets, 14 graduated. By 1983, there were 129 female officers, with 35 serving afloat and 5 serving as aviators.
Ships and all ratings open to women:
- Beginning in late-September of 1977, the first of 24 women chosen for afloat assignments began reporting on board the CGCs Gallatin and Morgenthau as members of their permanent crew. 12 women–two officers and 10 enlisted–served on board each cutter.
- In August, 1978 the Commandant announced that “all personnel restrictions based solely on sex would be lifted.” Thereafter all officer career fields and enlisted ratings were open to women.
Women’s suffrage advocates definitely blazed the trail, and we thank all of the men and women alike who have fought for women’s equality in the past.
However, today is not just about remembering the past, but ensuring and welcoming women’s equality now and into the future, so we also thank those who continue to fight for the rights of women everywhere!
(This blog does not even come close to mentioning all of the “firsts” or the women who accomplished those feats. Read more! )
Coast Guard SPARs circa 1972