At a White House ceremony earlier this month celebrating Women’s History Month, First Lady Michelle Obama honored the 200,000 women on active duty in the military and the women veterans who served with distinction before them.
Much has changed since the gallant women pilots — called WASPS — served during World War II without pay or benefits or official recognition until almost 50 years later.
First, here is a very brief video of the White House ceremony. Then read further as I revisit my story about the WASPS, whose duty to country was so exemplary, but who were relieved of their jobs by returning veterans and then faded into obscurity.
Violet Cowden was one of an elite corps of women pilots who ferried planes during World War II from factories to airfields where they were urgently needed. She died at 94 in 2011 and left a lasting legacy of loyalty and patriotism.
According to The New York Times obituary, Vi and her fellow women pilots flew thousands of vital missions, freeing male pilots for combat missions. Attached to the Army Air Forces, these experienced and patriotic women were known as WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots).
They Paid Their Own Way
I was shocked to learn that “Because they were civil service employees and not military personnel, the WASPs had to pay for their own food, lodging and often capacious attire. There were no flight suits for women then, and Mrs. Cowden, barely more than 5 feet tall, was installed in a men’s Size 44 for the duration.”
Vi worked seven days a week and “flew in all weather, came down on runways without lights, and sometimes took the controls of planes so fresh from the factory that they had never been tested.”
As the war wound down, male pilots began returning to the U.S., and Vi, along with the brave women she served with, were summarily dumped as men took their places.
Although 38 women lost their lives and many more were injured, they were not recognized for their service until many years later when President Carter signed a bill granting the WASPs recognition as veterans which allowed them to received limited benefits.
Finally, in March of 2010, The United States awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest award that a civilian can receive from Congress – to nearly 300 women, including WASPs, all over the age of 86.
Here is Vi at 92 in a documentary, “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story,” describing her war-time experience. It begins with footage of the stereotypical image of “girls” during that era. Then Vi shows us what women were really capable of.
As a woman, I stand on the shoulders of the pioneers like Vi Cowden who helped pave the way for the women who followed so we could assume increasing responsibility and authority in the military and in civilian life.
Thanks to all the women being honored during Women’s History Month. We are indebted to you for your courage, your commitment, and your contributions to society.