Women's History Month Vi Cowden

In Celebration of Women Who Paved the Way For Us

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.

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    • Marquita — the military is now finally allowing women into combat roles and entitled to more benefits. But the truth is women have always worked in combat zones as nurses, running supplies and facing the same dangers as men. Finally they are being recognized for it.

    • Jeri — that’s a nice story. My mother worked at Republic Aviation during WW II where they manufactured the famous P-47 Thunderbolt. While she left after the war, she and women of her era helped pave the way for women in the future to hold non-traditional jobs.

    • Phoenicia — sad, but true, they did not get the recognition they deserved until most had already died. Thanks for the beautiful quote.

  1. Jeannette, I love this post – I have read books about the WASPs and always found it unbelievable the way they were treated at the end of the war. They were so brave and flew under the most horrific conditions but they kept on flying – serving their country. Amazing women and I’m so glad that they have been recognized (unfortunately for many of them it came too late) and that you wrote about them. Thank you so much.
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    • Lenie — they literally took their lives in their hands because most of the planes hadn’t even been tested before they hopped in the pilot’s seat. These women were so brave and deserve to be remembered and honored for their duty to country.

  2. Hello Jeannette

    I always believe that no society or country can ever progress by suppressing its women power! This makes sense why we should celebrate women’s day 365 days a year.

    Coming to this post, it gives me immense pleasure to know that in America over 200,000 women are active providing service to the nation. They are undoubtedly country’s biggest assets.

    Way to go!

    • Ah, Tuhin. You are so right. We should be celebrating and empowering women every day of the year. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I had never heard the story of the WASPs. I guess that in itself is a commentary on how they were treated and how the recognition they deserved was withheld. Be interesting to know the stories of what some of these women did after the war. After assuming such a brave and meaningful role, it is hard ot imagine them going back to the domestic existence that was pretty typrical for women at the time.
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    • Ken — it was typical for women to relinquish their jobs to men returning from the war. But most history books will tell you that the prevalence of women in the workplace during WW II really ignited the women’s movement towards more equality with men. We’ve come a long way but there is still a long way to go.

    • Kristina — thanks for stopping by. These women were far from weak. They had tremendous courage to fly planes that hadn’t even been tested and fly them under very difficult circumstances.

  4. Agree with you completely, Jeannette, that these women deserve to be celebrated. Isn’t it amazing that they had to pay their own way and that once World War II was over they were just dumped.

    Glad that we, not only in the United States, but in most Western countries now have some women in the military. There are even some female Navy Seals.

    But we are stilll a long way from equality between the sexes. Not only in the military but in all areas of life. Sweden prides itself of being a leaser in the field because we are equal by law since long before I was born. Imagine my surprise when I camt back to my country after 22 years abroad and found that nothing had changed since 1986. Apart from the fact that women are nowadays allowed to be doghandlers.
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    • Catarina — I didn’t know whether to laugh or be sad about your last sentence and women being dog handlers. We’re equal by law in the U.S., too, but that doesn’t mean it’s reality.

  5. I’ve never heard of the WASPs but their story is amazing. I’m glad to hear that they finally did receive recognition, even though it was extremely belated. It is sad when women’s accomplishments get downplayed because of their gender. I’m glad we live in a society where women are more often getting the recognition they deserve (even if we do still have a long way to go.)

    • Erica — you would know of the WASPS if you were of a “certain” age. Unfortunately, many of the WASPS had died before they were able to be recognized for their heroism and achievements. I’m glad I could introduce them to you.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post, Jeannette. It’s frustrating how long it has taken for these brave and accomplished women to be formally recognized, but society must continue to press upon highlighting these individuals, so that they know their actions don’t go unnoticed.

    • Tatia — yes, too many WASPS died before our government formally recognized their heroism and patriotism. I’m glad they eventually gained the recognition they deserve.

  7. Hi Jeannette,

    It completely slipped my mind that it was Woman’s History Month! Thanks for the reminder.

    I never knew about Vi Cowden. What a wonderful share and you sure have chosen a great woman to remind us that we were and always are strong!

    Happy Women’s month to you new friend.

    -Donna
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    • Donna — glad I could remind you of Women’a History Month. We women have to stick together and celebrate ourselves. Vi Cowden’s story is so inspiring. I’m glad I could share it with you.

  8. Hi Jeannette, what an inspiring and amazing post. Vi is awesome. Seems contributions of women are often overlooked completely or at a minimum undervalued. Unfortunately still holds true many times today. It’s about time these brave women got the recognition they so definitely deserved!
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Meyer Lemon Curd: #RecipeMy Profile

    • Susan — A friend has been publishing other stories this month about incredibly accomplished women from the turn of the last century that are so inspiring. It’s Women’s History Month and their website has a lot more about the great women who preceded us.