By Jim DresbachMarch 16, 2012
Those who attended the Women's History Month program at Fort McNair's Officers Club March 14 received an empowering education from a retired Navy captain and Women in the Military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute director Lory Manning.
Throughout her half-hour presentation, "Women's Education -- Women's Empowerment," Manning guided the audience through more than a half century of congressional legislation and court cases that not only opened doors to women in the military, but blew the sexual inequality doors off the hinges. She noted that highlights that paved the way for female servicemembers to thrive included the 1948 Women Armed Service Integration Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the abolition of the draft and making the service academies available to females as critical watersheds in providing a near-level playing field in the military.
"Women's skill, service and devotion to duty in the first half of the [20th] century allowed this legislation," Manning said. "The same skill, service and devotion to duty led to the gradual undoing of the limitations that the legislation placed on women's service during the second half of the 20th century and into the new century. The full integration for women into the military service is almost, but not complete." Manning commented that most of the change toward gender equality was not challenged by male military leaders except for the change at the service academies which took place in 1975. "Military and civilian [leaders] fought this tooth and nail," Manning explained about how females gained admittance to West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. "This marked a big change in the military. It showed women were serving in their own right."
During her presentation, Manning said that throughout the past 11 decades, the limitations placed on females like termination from the military for becoming pregnant or the lack of benefits for a male spouse have been archaic, and women have evolved from phone message takers and clerks to becoming crew members on aircraft carriers or deployed downrange.
"Those limitations seem bizarre today," Manning said of the barriers women needed to climb to achieve promotions and equal status. "Those limitations fell away one at a time."
In his opening remarks, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Commander, Col. Carl R. Coffman made note of a quote on the cover of the celebration's program which was tied to the success of military women. "I was looking at the front of the program and there is a quote on there from Louisa May Alcott that says: 'I'm not afraid of storms for I'm learning how to sail my ship,'" Coffman recited. "Our women in service, whether it be in the service or industry or anywhere else, have learned to sail the ship and have done a real good job of it."
Before his introduction of Manning, Coffman referred to his predecessor, Brig. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, who is currently making her own military history. "It [women's military history] has happened close to home. . .We have a former joint base commander who is a woman who is currently the commander of operational test command at Fort Hood, Texas, and is about to become assistant division commander of the First Cavalry Division. That is a pretty significant event with woman serving in the military. I don't think there's been an assistant division commander ever that was a woman."
In addition to Manning's verbal presentation, a visual exhibition included photographs of famous women. Among those included were first lady Michelle Obama, current Secretary of State and former senator, first lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice.
Artist Chris Demarest was also a part of the program, and his canvas paintings depicting World War II-era women in action and at leisure were also a popular part of the exhibit. His project, which entails the painting of 50 works, is on display at the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.