By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public AffairsMarch 27, 2009
Fort Lee, Va. (March 26, 2009) -- A,A Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody made history when she recently became the first four-star female general officer of the U.S. Armed Forces.
A quartermaster, Dunwoody made her mark as the two-star commanding general of the post's Combined Arms Support Command. She has long departed the installation, but the swath that she and others helped to cut has given way to a new generation of female achievers who wear stars as well.
No, they are not of the general officer variety.A,A They areA,A senior noncommissioned officers who, as sergeants major and command sergeants major,A,A hold the highest enlisted ranks in the U.S. Army.A,A There are currently six such female Soldiers on the installation who've earned the distinction - five at the Quartermaster Center and School and one more assigned to its U.S. Army Garrison.
No one seems to keep statistics on such an occurrence, but in these parts, the likelihood that six female Soldiers in the grade of E-9 have been assigned to the post at one time is quite remote.
"I do not recall that number (of female E-9s) in the past," said Larry Toler, deputy to the commander, QMC&S, who has worked at the schoolhouse since 2002. "We've had some excellent female sergeants major, but never this many at one time."
The fact that not many people can recall this little footnote in the post's history says either no one is paying attention or the rate of progress in terms of gender has been so rapid and pervasive that it's near some measure of commonality.A,A Regardless of how anyone sees it, it is progress, said Sergeant Maj. Donna King, assigned to the Logistics Training Department.
"We've come a long way," said the Arkansas native and automated supply specialist.A,A "When I first came in the Army (in 1983), women weren't allowed to go into certain jobs. Today we're afforded lots of opportunities.A,A You see female first sergeants, battalion and brigade sergeants major and you see them pilot aircraft and do other jobs.A,A We've definitely come along way."
Women have participated, either directly or indirectly (and in some cases illegally), in almost every major conflict in which the country has been involved.A,A In the early stages of the republic, their jobs were limited to noncombatant roles such as nurses, cooks and launderers.A,A In World War I and II, the roles were expanded to include radio electricians, draftsmen and telephone operators.
Today, women are eligible for training in more than 90 percent of the Army's military occupational specialties and comprise about 14 percent of the Army and Department of Defense's personnel strength.A,A The latter suggests that the Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular offers a worthwhile job opportunity/career path for many women.
But the road to viability hasn't been a smooth one.A,A In the early 1980s, when women made up only 9 percent of the Army and it began making units coed, various issues surfaced with respect to gender.A,A First and foremost, there was a prevailing notion that women were not up to the task of soldiering.A,A As a result, many women felt they had to outperform their male counterparts.
"There was a stigma that women couldn't hold their own," said 1983 enlistee Sgt. Maj. Andrea Farmer, a food service manager assigned to the Enlisted Proponency.A,A "I felt like I had to prove myself."
Sgt. Maj. L'Tanya Williams, the top enlisted Soldier at the school's Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence, was also conscious of disparities between males and females back in the 1980s.A,A
She said she doesn't recall seeing any female sergeants major around that time but dismissed the improbable and set a goal to become one.
"I was always the one who wasn't going to let anyone stop me from doing what I wanted to do," she said.A,A "If one person said 'No, it cannot happen,'A,A I would go to someone else until I got the answer I wanted."
Farmer and Williams, like many other female Soldiers, found ways around obstacles and prospered as Soldiers.A,A Today, the issues that created barriers for many females have been minimized.A,A
Command Sgt. Maj. Delice Liggon, commandant of the Noncommissioned Officer's Academy, said the Army has implemented numerous policies and practices that place skills at the top of the criteria list for advancement.
"That means people will get promoted or selected based on ability and not anything else," said the 25-year Soldier.
Changing policies is one thing, but changing attitudes is another issue. As recently as the late '80s, there was still some measure of doubt on the part of males in respect to their female counterparts.A,A They worked together and went to the field together, but after the official duties were completed, the two parties went their separate ways.A,A A look around many military bases today tells a different story, said Sgt. Maj. Jerry Finin, the school's Operations sergeant major.
"(Female and male Soldiers) are intertwined," she said, noting there is more mutual appreciation and respect of one another.A,A "There is no separation with male and female Soldiers today, none whatsoever from what I've seen."
Not even on the battlefield.A,A Female Soldiers are barred from the Army's combat arms branches but Iraq and Afghanistan proved that it was difficult to keep them out of harm's way.
According to the Department of Defense, about 87 female Soldiers have died in the area of operations and hundreds have been injured.A,A Many were lost in attacks along with their male counterparts. Countless numbers of female Soldiers have distinguished themselves in battle and earned the respect of the nation and their male counterparts.
If their participation in the current War on Terror is any indication, women have made giant strides of progress in erasing what remains on the horizon of equality. Add the six female E-9s assigned to Fort Lee to the equation as well.A,A Collectively, they've all earned their stripes (and stars) in and out of combat zones, serving as shining representatives of the Army's gender evolution and standing ready to cut the next swath of progress for their fellow Soldiers.