March 4th, 2016 09:32 EST
Women`s Military History 'a Revolution,` General Says
Comic timing is not a skill always associated with military officers, but retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught can make the history of women in the U.S. armed forces sound both compelling and absurdly funny.
An example: Vaught recounted that when rank was denied to female military nurses in 1901, The male members of Congress said women shouldn`t be ordering men around. Women have been ordering men around since the beginning of time. "
Vaught was guest of honor yesterday at a Women`s History Month reception recognizing women service members and veterans. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hosted the reception and First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden both delivered rousing remarks about women in the military, but the general stole the show.
Vaught -- who will turn 86 this month and joined the Air Force in 1957 -- spoke about how history affected my life. "
Achieving General`s Rank
Vaught emphasized some important dates in her own and the military`s history:
-- 1948: the Women`s Armed Services Integration Act allows women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces. Vaught graduates from high school in Illinois the same year, one of 12 young women in a graduating class of 24.
-- 1957: Vaught joins and is commissioned in the Air Force, which offers only one colonel`s position for women: director of women in the Air Force. The law at the time prohibits the promotion of women beyond O-6.
-- 1967: Congress votes to lift the 2-percent cap on women in the military and to allow women to advance to general and admiral ranks. The following year, Vaught serves a tour of duty in Vietnam.
-- 1980: Vaught is promoted to brigadier [one-star] general, the first woman in the comptroller career field to reach the rank.
Military Women Push for Rights
Around the 1970s, Vaught said, changes in women`s military standing arose largely through their own efforts in the courts.
She related that one of our Air Force first lieutenants " filed a discrimination suit against the defense secretary because, as a woman, she was denied spouse benefits for her husband.
She lost, " Vaught noted. But that case got picked up by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, " who argued it successfully before the Supreme Court in 1973.
Women also sued for admission to ROTC programs and the service academies. The academies admitted their first female students in 1976.
They sued over women being forced to leave the service on the day they were diagnosed as being pregnant, " she said. They sued over the principle that if women had children in their household, they had to get out [of the service]. "
Women won all those lawsuits, the general said, and things changed. Though as an unmarried woman with no children she wasn`t affected by many of the policy changes, she said, I couldn`t help but be aware " of women having greater opportunities. "
The story of women in the military truly has been a revolution, and I don`t know that it`s finished yet, " Vaught noted.
When she retired in 1985 as a brigadier general, she was the senior of the seven women generals or admirals across the services, Vaught said.
Today, we have three four-star women; two in the Army -- generals -- and one [admiral] in the Navy, " she noted.
A Memorial Spotlighting Military Women
After retiring and residing in the Washington area, Vaught said, she got involved in a new project aimed at spotlighting women in uniform. That project led to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, approved in 1985, dedicated in 1997 and located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
Vaught served as president of the memorial corporation`s board of directors [she said she was first elected during a board meeting she forgot to attend] from 1987 to January of this year, when she retired from the position.
Early in the memorial`s development, Vaught said, she asked herself if, in the interest of equality, it was right to build a memorial that segregated women. "
She ultimately decided, This was something we had to do. "
Vaught said the Revolutionary War`s troops included about 1.8 million unrecognized women veterans. " The books were written about the men. " Every woman who has served in the U.S. armed forces can register her name at the memorial, Vaught noted.
Women answered the call because they wanted to do what they could to serve their country. " They couldn`t be thinking about a career in the military until 1948, when women finally became official members of the military, " she reminded her audience.
So women have always been volunteers and I guess we will be until they decide to draft us, " Vaught said. And if they do, we are Americans too, and we will want to serve our country. "
(Follow Karen Parish on Twitter: @parrishDoDNews)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia