Women in the United States Air Force

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Janet Wolfenbarger became the first female four-star general in the Air Force in 2012.[1]

There have been women in the United States Air Force since 1948, and women continue to serve in it today.[2][3]


Note that some minor wars women served in have been omitted from this history.


Esther McGowin Blake was the first woman in the Air Force, having enlisted in the WAF the first minute of the first hour of the first day regular Air Force duty was authorized for women on July 8, 1948.[2][4][5]

The National Security Act of 1947 made the Air Force a separate military service.[6] That year, some Women’s Army Corps (WACs) members continued serving in the Army but performed Air Force duties.[6] In 1948 they were able to transfer to Women in the Air Force (called WAF), and some did.[4][6] WAF was created in 1948 with the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which gave women permanent status in the Regular and Reserve forces of the Air Force.[5] Esther McGowin Blake was the first woman in the Air Force, having enlisted in the WAF the first minute of the first hour of the first day regular Air Force duty was authorized for women on July 8, 1948.[2][4][5] The first commissioner of the WAF was Geraldine Pratt May, who was also the first Air Force woman to become a colonel.[4]

Korean War and after until the Vietnam War[edit]

During the Korean War, medical air evacuation nurses were the only women in the Air Force allowed to serve in the Korean battle zone.[6] Other women carried out support roles at rear-echelon bases in Japan, as air traffic controllers, weather observers, radar operators, and photo interpreters.[6] By the end of the Korean War, 12,800 WAF officers and enlisted women were serving worldwide.[6]

After the war, in 1960 a ban began on all transgender people, including but not limited to transgender women, from serving and enlisting in the United States military, including but not limited to the Air Force.

Vietnam War[edit]

600 to 800 WAFs served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.[6] In addition to serving as nurses and medical evacuation personnel, WAFs also served in a variety of support staff assignments in hospitals, with MASH Units, in service clubs, in headquarters offices, and in intelligence, as well as in a variety of personnel positions.[6] In 1967 Public Law 90-130 was signed into law; it removed legal ceilings on women's promotions that had kept them out of the general and flag ranks, and dropped the two percent ceiling on officer and enlisted strengths for women in the armed forces.[7] In 1969 women were allowed to join the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps.[6] In 1971 Jeanne M. Holm became the first female airman promoted to brigadier general.[6]

Women in the Air Force since 1972[edit]

Captain Kim Campbell inspecting damage to her A-10 Thunderbolt II during the Iraq War in 2003

Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), was a landmark Supreme Court case[8] which decided that benefits given by the military to the family of service members cannot be given out differently because of sex.[9] Air Force Lieutenant Sharron Frontiero and her husband Joseph, a veteran and full-time student, were the plaintiffs.[10]

In 1976 the WAF was ended and women were allowed into the Air Force as equal members.[4]

Also in 1976, the Air Force Academy first admitted women; in 1986, the Air Force Academy’s top graduate was a woman for the first time (Terrie Ann McLaughlin).[6][11][12]

Also in 1986, six Air Force women served as pilots, copilots, and boom operators on the KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that refueled FB-111s during the raid on Libya.[6]

Women in the Air Force served in Operation Desert Shield (1990-1991) and Operation Desert Storm (1991).[13][14]

Before the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was enacted in 1993, lesbians and bisexual women (and gay men and bisexual men) were banned from serving in the military.[15] In 1993 the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was enacted, which mandated that the military could not ask servicemembers about their sexual orientation.[16][17] However, until the policy was ended in 2011 service members were still expelled from the military if they engaged in sexual conduct with a member of the same sex, stated that they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and/or married or attempted to marry someone of the same sex.[18]

On April 28, 1993, combat exclusion was lifted from aviation positions by Les Aspin, permitting women to serve in almost any aviation capacity.[19]

Also in 1993, Sheila Widnall became the first female Secretary of the Air Force, making her the first woman to lead a U.S. military branch in the Department of Defense.[20]

In 1994, the Pentagon declared:

Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.[21]

That policy also excluded women being assigned to certain organizations based upon proximity to direct combat or "collocation" as the policy specifically referred to it.[22] According to the Army, collocation occurs when, "the position or unit routinely physically locates and remains with a military unit assigned a doctrinal mission to routinely engage in direct combat."[23]

Kelly Flinn, sometimes referred to as Kelly Flynn, was the first female B-52 pilot in the Air Force,[24] but was discharged from the Air Force in 1997 after an adulterous affair with the husband of an enlisted subordinate, for military offenses including disobeying a direct order from her commanding officer to break off the affair, and for lying to him about having done so.[25] Flinn's trouble with the Air Force received widespread media attention at the time and was discussed in a Senate hearing on May 22, 1997.[25]

Women in the Air Force served in the Iraq War from 2003 until 2011.[26][27]

The Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal in 2003 involved allegations of sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, as well as allegations that the alleged incidents had been ignored by the Academy’s leadership.[28]

Air Force Reserve medical personnel at Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst during the COVID-19 pandemic, April 2020

The United States Air Force Basic Training scandal involved 43 female trainees who alleged being victimized by their Military Training Instructors during and after basic military training starting from 2009.[29] Seventeen male instructors were accused of offenses ranging from seeking improper relationships to rape[30] and 35 instructors were removed from their posts pending investigations.[31] Nine of the accused instructors belonged to the 331st Training Squadron. The commander of the 331st Training Squadron, Lt. Col. Mike Paquette, was removed from command in June 2012 because of the problems in his unit.[32] In August 2012 the commander of the 737th training group, Col. Glenn Palmer, was also relieved from his position due to the scandal.[33]

In 2012 Janet Wolfenbarger became the Air Force's first female four-star general.[1] Before that, there had been women general officers of a lesser rank in the Air Force, including, among others, an African American female physician, Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD, a medical oncologist who became a brigadier general and president of an American medical society.[34]

In 2013 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed the military's ban on women serving in combat, overturning the 1994 rule. Panetta's decision gave the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believed any positions must remain closed to women. The services had until May 2013 to draw up a plan for opening all units to women and until the end of 2015 to actually implement it.[35][36]

In December 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated that starting in 2016 all combat jobs would open to women.[37]

In March 2016, Ash Carter approved final plans from military service branches and the U.S. Special Operations Command to open all combat jobs to women, and authorized the military to begin integrating female combat soldiers "right away."[38]

From 1960 to June 30, 2016, there was a blanket ban on all transgender people, including but not limited to transgender women, from serving and enlisting in the United States military, including but not limited to the Air Force. From June 30, 2016 to April 11, 2019, transgender personnel in the United States military were allowed to serve in their preferred gender upon completing transition. From January 1, 2018 to April 11, 2019, transgender individuals could enlist in the United States military under the condition of being stable for 18 months in their preferred or biological gender. On April 12, 2019, Directive-type Memorandum-19-004 took effect and therefore transgender personnel in the United States military are not allowed to serve or enlist in the United States military, except if they serve in their original sex assignment, had been grandfathered in prior to April 12, 2019, or were given a waiver. Directive-type Memorandum-19-004 was scheduled to expire on March 12, 2020, but was since extended till September 12, 2020.[39][40] Before it expired, it was replaced by a reissued version of DoD Instruction 1300.28, “Military Service by Transgender Persons and Persons with Gender Dysphoria," which took effect on September 4, 2020.[41]

In June 2020, Emily Thompson became the first female fighter pilot to fly an F-35A stealth plane from Al Dhafra Air Force Base in the United Arab Emirates to an undisclosed location in the Middle East.[42]

Women in the Air Force currently serve in the Afghanistan War that began in 2001, and the American-led intervention in Iraq that began in 2014.[26][43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Barrie Barber (June 6, 2012). "Wolfenbarger makes history as AF's first female four-star". www.springfieldnewssun.com. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  2. ^ a b c Women of the U.S. Air Force: Aiming High By Heather E. Schwartz, p.14
  3. ^ "Air Force secretary announces bold moves to boost women, minorities". Airforcetimes.com. 2015-03-04. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  4. ^ a b c d e Rose Eveleth (July 8, 2013). "Today in 1948, the U.S. Air Force Accepted Its First Female Member". Smithsonianmag.com. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  5. ^ a b c "Highlights in the History of Military Women". Womensmemorial.org; Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation's website. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Martha Lockwood (September 18, 2014). "Women's legacy parallels Air Force history > U.S. Air Force > Article Display". Af.mil. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  7. ^ "Did you know...?". Womensmemorial.org; Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation's website. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  8. ^ Technically, the case was decided under the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, not under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, since the latter applies not to the federal government but to the states. However, because Bolling v. Sharpe, through the doctrine of reverse incorporation, made the standards of the Equal Protection Clause applicable to the federal government, it was for practical purposes an addition not to due process, but rather to equal protection jurisprudence.
  9. ^ "Frontiero v. Richardson | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law". Oyez.org. Retrieved 2015-08-09.
  10. ^ "Frontiero v. Richardson | Southern Poverty Law Center". Splcenter.org. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  11. ^ "Factsheets : Air Force Academy History". Usafa.af.mil. January 18, 2012. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  12. ^ Barbara Mahany (1986-05-29). "Air Academy's Best: Just Call Her Sir". Articles.chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2015-08-15.
  13. ^ Gerry J. Gilmore (2002-07-09). "News Article: Air Force Women Surveyed Report Health Challenges During Gulf Service". Defense.gov. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  14. ^ "News Article: The Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Timeline". Defense.gov; National Guard Bureau. August 8, 2000. Retrieved 2015-08-15.
  15. ^ Elizabeth Hoffman (January 15, 2014). "Military Service Should Be Based On Conduct, Not Sexual Orientation". prezi.com. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
  16. ^ Craig A. Rimmerman Gay rights, military wrongs: political perspectives on lesbians and gays in the military, Garland Pub., 1996 ISBN 0815325800 p. 249
  17. ^ Thompson, Mark. (2008-01-28) 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Turns 15. TIME. Retrieved on 2010-11-30.
  18. ^ Richard A. Gittins The Military Commander & the Law, DIANE Publishing, 1996 ISBN 0788172603 p. 215
  19. ^ Lohrenz, Carey D. (2013-01-30). "Time for Some Fearless Leadership | TIME.com". Nation.time.com. Retrieved 2015-08-09.
  20. ^ "Women in the U.S. Military". Milwomen.info; Military Women Across the Nation, formerly WAVES National. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  21. ^ Paula Broadwell (October 20, 2009). "Women at War". New York Times.
  22. ^ "The 2012 Statistical Abstract; National Security & Veterans Affairs: Military Personnel and Expenditures; 511 - Military Personnel on Active Duty by Rank or Grade". United States Census Bureau;Department of Defense. Retrieved 2012-05-10.
  23. ^ Army Regulation (27 March 1992). "Army Regulation 600-13, Army Policy For The Assignment of Female Soldiers". Department of the Army.
  24. ^ Dejevsky, Mary (19 May 1997). "Female B-52 pilot quits over charges of adultery". The Independent on Sunday. London.
  25. ^ a b "End to messy case Kelly Flinn: General discharge for Air Force lieutenant is wise resolution". The Baltimore Sun. May 24, 1997.
  26. ^ a b Patrick Winn (December 29, 2007). "Female airmen deadly in Iraq, Afghanistan". Archive.airforcetimes.com. Retrieved 2015-08-12.
  27. ^ Joseph Logan (December 18, 2011). "Last U.S. troops leave Iraq, ending war". Reuters. Retrieved 2014-10-29.
  28. ^ Meredith Clark (August 4, 2014). "Report finds sexual assault, drug use at Air Force Academy". Msnbc.com. Retrieved 2014-10-29.
  29. ^ Woodward, Margaret (Aug 22, 2012). "Developing America's Airmen: A Review of Air Force Enlisted Training" (PDF). www.AF.Mil. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  30. ^ Davis, Kristin (Aug 27, 2012). "MTIs accused of wrong relationships now at 17". Air Force Times. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  31. ^ Jervis, Rick (July 19, 2012). "Sex-assault scandal casts a pall over Lackland AFB". USA Today. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  32. ^ Carroll, Chris (June 29, 2012). "Air Force has identified 31 alleged victims in Lackland sex abuse scandal". Stars & Stripes. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  33. ^ Weber, Paul J.; Lolita C. Baldor (Aug 10, 2012). "Air Force relieves commander over sex scandal". AP. AP. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  34. ^ "Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD - National Medical Association". www.nmanet.org.
  35. ^ Lolita C. Baldor (23 January 2013). "Women In Combat: Leon Panetta Removes Military Ban, Opening Front-Line Positions". Huffington Post.
  36. ^ David Martin (June 14, 2013). "Panetta to lift ban on women in combat". CBS News.
  37. ^ Jim Miklaszewski. "All Combat Roles Now Open to Women". NBC News.
  38. ^ "Ashton Carter approves final strategy for women in military combat roles". The Washington Times.
  40. ^ "Directive-type Memorandum (DTM)-19-004 - Military Service by Transgender Persons and Persons with Gender Dysphoria March 17, 2020" (PDF).
  41. ^ Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (4 September 2020). "DoD Instruction 1300.28: Military Service by Transgender Persons and Persons with Gender Dysphoria" (PDF). www.esd.whs.mil. Retrieved 7 September 2020.
  42. ^ Correll, Diana Stancy (2020-06-11). "This Air Force pilot is the first woman to fly the F-35 in combat". Air Force Times. Retrieved 2020-06-23.
  43. ^ "Becoming a boom". Air Force Reserve Command.