By Colonel Nancy A. Shefflette (USAF, Retired), 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 17, 2018
During my years as an active duty member, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the role of women in the Air Force continued to evolve and grow. Significant changes in federal law and military policy that occurred during my active duty career improved the ability of women in the Air Force to contribute more fully to accomplishing the Service’s mission then, and established a foundation for more complete utilization of female Air Members that we now see in the early 21st century.
When I entered the Air Force in late 1972, the military draft for the war in Vietnam was ending, the All-Volunteer Force was about to be implemented, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender had been passed by the U.S. Senate and gone out to the states for ratification. Expanding the role of women in the military was envisioned as a way to attract more women to military service, thereby contributing to the success of our all-volunteer military. Opening up many Air Force career fields to women that had formerly been reserved for males only was a policy change that enabled women to contribute their talents to a wider array of specialties than ever before. I benefited from these new policies and was able to begin my USAF career in aircraft maintenance, a field just opened to women in the early 1970s.
As I worked with my USAF recruiter to apply for Officer Training School, it was the only path available to me to pursue a career as an Air Force officer. AFROTC units opened up to women across the country in 1970, too late for me because my bachelor’s degree was nearly completed at that time. The U.S. Air Force Academy had not yet been opened to female cadets. During my OTS application process, I was stunned to discover that female applicants at that time were required to have higher test scores on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test than male applicants, and to submit multiple photographs of themselves with their applications instead of the single photograph male applicants provided. I was accepted for a slot at OTS but wondered why there was any difference at all between male and female applicant requirements.
Women were less than 3 percent of the Air Force in 1970 and were referred to as “WAFs” (Women of the Air Force). WAF was a cadre of women authorized by President Truman upon his signing of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948; this law enabled women serving in the military to have permanent regular or reserve status with veteran benefits, a contrast to their volunteer status with no benefits in World War II. Originally the number of WAFs was limited to 4,000 enlisted women and 300 female officers, and to career fields in which they performed primarily clerical and medical duties. Air Force women were administratively assigned and housed in WAF squadrons for decades, although they performed their duties in squadrons other than the WAF squadron. In 1976 the WAF was discontinued in favor of full integration of women into the Air Force units to which they were functionally assigned.
In 1976 women were first admitted to the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as the other military service academies, and provided with the first opportunity to apply for pilot or navigator training. I received a letter as a 1st lieutenant advising me that I was eligible to apply for aircrew training; after considering that option, however, I decided to remain an aircraft maintenance officer. Despite the fact that aircrew members received flight pay in addition to their base pay and allowances, I was very satisfied with my active duty pay and appreciated the fact that women in the Air Force receive equal pay for equal work.
From time to time I was concerned that my intention to be a career officer in a nontraditional career field was not always taken seriously. When the duty section that I was responsible for was highlighted for excellence in a major command Inspector General Team visit report, I was very disappointed that my next performance report ranking in comparison to my peers was lower than I anticipated. I wondered if the fact that I was a single female officer was perceived by my male supervisors as an indicator that I was not career-minded. I also wondered if my male peers were given more serious consideration for higher ratings and promotion consideration because they were married with families. These concerns influenced me to work even harder and to make clear to my supervisors that I was dedicated to the Air Force and committed to being a high achiever.
After completing my first assignment at my first permanent duty station, I had a series of subsequent assignments that brought me great professional and personal satisfaction. My concerns about fair competition for promotion with my peers were no longer on my mind, and I observed that women in the Air Force were able to excel, to be selected for increased responsibilities, and to be promoted to higher grades. I completed Squadron Officer School and a remote tour overseas, was competitively selected for a special duty assignment, and served a four year tour at a major command headquarters staff. By then, in the mid-1980s, women in the Air Force were nearly 10 percent of the total active duty population, and serious thought was being given to removing combat exclusions that prevented women from serving in all career fields—true indicators of the success that women in the Air Force were achieving.
The Air Force did experience some growing pains with the increasing female active duty population. For example, the former policy from the early 1970s that required female active duty members to separate from the Air Force if they became pregnant was abolished. Uniforms for women in the Air Force were given more attention, including the addition of fatigue uniforms to fit women, a female uniform with slacks, and the creation of a maternity uniform. There were better supplies of uniforms for female military members.
As a field grade officer in the mid-1980s I found that female as well as male Air Force members who were dedicated, hard-working and showed leadership potential had doors opening for them to capitalize on their knowledge, skills and experience for the betterment of the Air Force. I was very gratified to have been selected to be a squadron commander in 1988 and a deputy group commander in 1990. I had a few encounters with male peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s who seemed to believe women did not belong in the Air Force or in nontraditional career fields. Sheila Widnall’s selection as the first female Secretary of the Air Force in 1993 was a clear indication that any lingering doubts about women in the Air Force were out of step with the reality of women’s successes. I was honored to serve as a group commander at Little Rock Air Force Base from 1994-1996, and to complete my Air Force career at Headquarters, Air Mobility Command. I believe that women’s equality in the United States Air Force will always be worth pursuing and perfecting, because the potential of every Air Force member should be nurtured and appreciated as a gift to our nation.