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Monday, June 12, 2023

June 12, 2023: Women in War: The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act

[June 12th marks the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, an important step toward a more inclusive America on multiple levels. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other histories of women in war, leading up to a Guest Post from one of the best scholars of those histories and issues!]

Three women who reflect the arguments for and effects of this transformative legislation.

1)      Margaret Chase Smith: As that hyperlinked Senate bio succinctly illustrates, there were no shortage of significant moments and achievements in Margaret Chase Smith’s groundbreaking political career. But I would certainly argue that her (initially) sole sponsorship of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act has to be very high on that list. As the ensuing Congressional debate (on which more in a moment) reflects, the idea of legally allowing women to become regular and permanent members of the armed forces was quite controversial; while President Truman could have taken the step with an Executive Order (as he crucially did when racially integrating the armed forces), proposing it as a bill made it possible to have that debate and still succeed in achieving this inclusive outcome. And we have Margaret Chase Smith to thank for that!

2)      Mary Hallaren: As a Senator, Chase Smith could help argue for the Act, but of course could not also serve as an expert witness on its behalf during those debates. Many military men did importantly and inspiringly do so, including Truman’s Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. But perhaps the most extended and certainly the most eloquent expert witness was Mary Hallaren, Director of the WWII Women’s Army Corps (on whom more later this week) and as that first hyperlinked bio quotes “one of the giants among military women” (despite standing less than 5 feet tall). The Congressman questioning Hallaren, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Walter Andrews, was a vocal opponent of the Act, and undoubtedly contributed to the long process between the February start of hearings and the June 12th passage. But pass it did, and we have experts like Mary Hallaren to thank for that!

3)      Frances Lois Willoughby: That passage didn’t just immediately transform the U.S. military and the national community more broadly; it also transformed the careers and lives of countless American women. One of the first so affected with Frances Lois Willoughby, a pioneering physician who had volunteered for the Navy in 1944 but been assigned only to the Naval Reserve due to her gender. She stayed in the military after the war, and in October 1948 was sworn in as the first female doctor in the Navy; two years later she became the first woman to achieve the rank of commander. She would serve for another 14 years before her retirement in 1964, becoming a captain and continuing to influence the Navy, the medical profession, and the possibilities for women in both worlds as well as the nation overall. Just one inspiring figure who has the Armed Services Integration Act to thank for her amazing career!

Next war women tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other stories or histories you’d highlight?

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