FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. - One hundred and one years ago, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote, and in 1971 Congress approved legislation proclaiming Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The Fort Hamilton community celebrated this day with an observance Aug. 31 at the post Community Club here.
The observance was planned and conducted by Fort Hamilton’s mission partner, the New York City Recruiting Battalion, and it commemorated both the culmination of the long struggle to afford women the right to vote, as well as the heroes who challenged the nation to live up to its founding principles.
“The New York City Recruiting Battalion enlists young men and women across the New York metropolitan area,” said Lt. Col. Harold Morris, NYC Recruiting Battalion Commander, in his welcoming remarks. “Without women, not only would our mission look very different, but our Army would be a less capable force. The 19th Amendment paved the way for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women’s Army Corps, women being integrated into the Army, and most recently integrated into combat Military Occupational Specialties. The Army is a much better force now than it was, and I’m honored to be a part of that Army.”
Retired Col. Mary Westmoreland, president of the Association of the United States Army Greater New York Statue of Liberty Chapter, was the guest speaker for the event. She is a combat veteran with service in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, a native New Yorker, whose military career spanned just under 32 years. She served in both the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army, active and reserve status.
“I came in 1976…I was invited aggressively by two services, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army,” said Westmoreland. “I went to the Coast Guard, for the obvious reasons that they were friendlier to mothers and families, and in those days you could get an assignment you asked for. For the Army, those were challenging. They were not accustomed to accommodating to women with family, so we had that challenge right there. I chose to go in as a Reserve member first, and test the waters. It was a wonderful experience.”
By 1979 though, the Coast Guard was changing, and they did not need individuals in Westmoreland’s profession, a systems integrator, now known as a “system engineer” or “software engineer”. If she wanted to stay in the Coast Guard, she would have to either qualify in another specialty or leave. Her commander advised her to take her talents to the Army, because they were expanding systems integration. She talked to an Army recruiter and was told she had a career and future if she wanted; there was an opening in the officer corps for her. She transferred over to the Army as an E-4.
“Flexibility and being open to options is always an essential ingredient to success,” said Westmoreland. “For women, we don’t give up. We keep our target and we do not lose our balance when we do find ourselves maybe slipping. We get back there.”
In her closing statements, Westmoreland remarked on the common denominator she has found in women in uniform.
“They always go the extra mile…That’s part of our culture,” said Westmoreland. “We’ve had to compete with a culture or society dominated by the opposite gender. We’ve had to prove ourselves in this world. The day that we are able to feel equal and not have to go beyond a mile beyond our peers to exceed together, will feel so much better in how far we’ve come in equality.”
Westmoreland was followed by another guest speaker, Lorraine West. West shared her experiences as a U.S. Army corporal from 1949 to 1952, serving honorably with one year and three months deployed in support of the Korean Conflict defense effort in the 2nd Infantry Division, attached to the Yokohama Engineering Depot in Japan. She had attended college and was in her second year, when she answered the Army’s call for women to serve in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps.
“It was a fight between certain countries, and we [women] were just sort of forgotten until there was a shortage,” said West. “Then they started saying, ‘Hey, she can do it. Use her.’ And did they do it.”
The then Corporal West, served during a time when barriers to voting for some Americans was prevalent even after the 19th Amendment was ratified by Congress establishing the American woman’s right to vote. Yet, she was one of the brave and courageous women who volunteered to serve. It would not be until 1968 with the Civil Rights Act that her voting rights were fully protected.
Michelle Dellafave, a recording artist who performed with the Bob Hope USO Tours, sang the songs, “This is My Country” and “I am Woman” during the ceremony. Army Sgt. First Class Hope Harrell read Maya Angelou’s poem, “Equality”.
Col. Craig Martin, Fort Hamilton Garrison Commander, closed the ceremony and presented a token of appreciation to the guest speakers.
“It’s always special when we can have those with a life of experience come share those with us and give us the opportunity to learn,” said Martin. “I’m blessed to have teammates that can bring an event like this together and ensure that we take the matter of women’s equality absolutely seriously.”
Today, women make up 18% of the regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, and 36% of the Army’s civilian workforce. In the past year alone, several breakthroughs were made for women's equality in the military. In May, Honorable Christine Wormuth was nominated to be the first female Secretary of the Army, and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson was nominated to become the second woman in Army history to receive the rank of four star general.