Women take 200-year trek toward respect, parity
September 2, 2011
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- A mixed panel of civilians and Soldiers discussed their experiences as professional women climbing through the ranks of their professions with an audience of Fort Huachuca community members at Fitch Auditorium Aug. 26.
This event was sponsored and hosted by the Fort Huachuca Equal Opportunity office to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Women's Equality Day, which was also the 91st anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave full voting rights to women.
Panel member Elsie MacMillan, owner of Sierra Toyota in Sierra Vista, shared her experience in a career field typically dominated by men when she began 30 years ago.
"I started as a bookkeeper at a car dealership, which was a typical job for a woman in my day, and I loved the business so much that I wanted to learn more about the various operations and grow with it," she said "I tried to be who I was, in that my qualifications got me to where I was at the time."
After reaching a certain level of advancement, MacMillan found herself at an impasse in her career, but with her husband's encouragement, she started her own successful dealership and is still in the business three decades later.
MacMillan assessed career roadblocks then paved her own way to success during a time in American history that, according to her, was unusual for women to own their own businesses -- especially in the automotive industry.
The other panel members, Gwen Calhoun, city councilwoman and retired nurse; Sgt. Maj. Julie Guerra, 111th Military Intelligence Brigade; Sgt. Maj. Jacqueline Edwards and Sgt. Maj. Sohui Chong, 11th Signal Brigade; and Ramona Saunders, PhD., president of the Phoenix chapter of Delta Beta Omega, have realized successful careers as well, and according to them, experienced inequality in the workplace that they channeled into perseverance.
The experiences of the civilian panelists somewhat mirrors those of the Soldiers, for the struggle of women's equality was not defined by the workplace; it was defined by gender.
"I would say that in spite of [inequality], we've been able to rise above the glass ceiling and break through the wall, as is demonstrated by the three female sergeants major sitting on this panel," said Guerra.
"The key to my success was never taking 'no' for an answer, and anytime I was told that I couldn't do something because I was MI and because I was a female, I found a way to do it anyway," Guerra explained. "I was more qualified, had the potential and was recognized by my male leaders, who gave me the opportunity to [fill] those leadership positions."
While these positions have not always been open to female servicemembers, today's military women are doctors, lawyers, pilots, heavy equipment operators, air traffic controllers, paratroopers, forklift operators and military police.
In a recent interview with Rudi Williams of American Forces Press Service, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, addressed how the military has changed for women, expressing that it took more than 220 years and many trials, tribulations and indignities for women to reach their present plateau in military service.
They've climbed from being cooks, laundresses and nurses with no rank, to generals, admirals, astronauts, pilots, ships' captains, heavy equipment operators, administrators and much more, she said.
Vaught said she's not one to dwell upon the past, noting there's too much to be excited about today and the future. But it's important for military women today to be aware of their history, she said, quoting a Chinese maxim: "When drinking the water, don't forget who dug the well."
"Many women don't understand today's military isn't the way it has always been for women," said Vaught. "If you're going to understand where you need to go, you need to understand where you've been."
To illustrate her point, Vaught shared a chronological history of women in the military, beginning with the American Revolution, a time when she said some women wanted to serve their country so badly that they disguised themselves as men, to the passing of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, which codified women's status as it was at the end of World War II.
"It did give women rank and a permanent place in the services in wartime and peacetime," she said.
Women finally had most of the benefits men had, but Congress set ceilings on the percentage of women in uniform and the number who could be Army lieutenant colonels and colonels or Navy captains and commanders.
Women were prohibited from being generals or admirals until President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 90-130 on Nov. 8, 1967. The measure opened women's promotions to general and flag ranks, said Vaught, who was promoted to brigadier general in 1980.
It also lifted ceilings for other ranks and removed the 2-percent ceiling on the number of active duty enlisted women. The law, however, didn't change some of the rules about entitlements.
"Those limitations were very frustrating and very real," Vaught said. "There were no such rules for men."
"It was tough for women in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and it will be tough for women in the next century," she said. "But women proved they could do the job as well as most men. They've gained the respect they've deserved all along."
Friday's panelists supported Vaught's sentiments. "Within our organization, the benefit of young men seeing female leaders successfully fill roles of leadership … seeing them train, teach, coach and mentor, teaches them that we have the ability to fulfill these roles, be successful and do what we are supposed to do as NCOs [noncommissioned officers], which is take care of Soldiers," Guerra said.
Gender becomes a moot point then, she said.
According to discussion moderator Col. Angelia Farnell, commander of the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade, the military still has a little way to go because there are still jobs that are closed to women, but she is hopeful.
"Our male counterparts are accepting us more and more every day," she concluded.
(Editor's note: Portions of this article were adapted from an American Forces Press Service article by Rudi Williams. To read the article in its entirety, go to http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=43226.)