How 6 Brave Women Became the 1st Female US Navy Fliers, According to Author Beverly Weintraub
Beverly Weintraub spoke with Inside Edition Digital to tell the story of six women who "challenged how things were done inside the Navy and outside the Navy, and really opened the door for generations of women pilots who followed."
It wasn't so long ago that women were forbidden to serve as aviators in the U.S. Navy. The story of how six pioneers broke that glass ceiling is told by journalist Beverly Weintraub in her book, "Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators."
Weintraub spoke with Inside Edition Digital to share their heroic story. "They challenged how things were done inside the Navy and outside the Navy, and really opened the door for generations of women pilots who followed," she said.
Women have served in the Navy since 1908.
"In the bureau of aeronautics during World War I, there were 12,000 women, not necessarily pilots, but doing all sorts of other jobs. During World War II, they were air traffic controllers," Weintraub said. "They were airplane mechanics. Airborne navigators. They taught men how to navigate and how to fly. Anecdotally, some who had pilots licenses may have unofficially done some flying."
The army had 1,074 women who flew for them during the war. Those Women's Air Force Service Pilots were also known as The WASP. But these women in the service were viewed as weak and dealt with a lot of sexism, she explained. They also were not allowed to fly in combat.
But these women pilots logged some serious miles during the war.
"And they flew something like 60 million miles between 1942 and 1944," Weintraub said. "And then the men started coming home, and [the women] were sent packing with a 'thank you very much.'"
After 1948, these women volunteer auxiliaries were normalized into the military in the Navy, but it was made very clear that women were not to fly.
And for decades, women didn't fly for the Navy — until 1972.
"As the Vietnam War was winding down, society was seeing tremendous upheavals," Weintraub said. "There was a sexual revolution. Women were demanding equal treatment.
"Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who became the youngest Chief of Naval Operations in history, took a look at this and said, 'We have to do something to fix this. We have a moral problem. We have a personnel crisis,'" she continued. "They needed people. And they needed the most skilled people they could find.
The answer? It seems obvious today, Weintraub said, but back then, it was a controversial notion to let women fly. But they eventually did.
"So they went to officers and officers trainees, found four women who could qualify, found four more civilians," she said. "Most came from military families. A couple of them had their pilot's licenses. A couple others had flown but had not gotten their licenses. One had never flown other than as a passenger."
One of each group dropped out, and the inaugural group of female naval aviators dropped to six.
"These six women, who persisted in their careers far longer than any men expected them to," Weintraub said. "They overcame obstacles, logged a huge litany of firsts."
One of the women was Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner.
"She was the first woman to command the aviation squadron," she said. "She was the first woman to fly a Navy tactical jet when women technically weren't allowed to fly jets.
"She was the first woman to fly the C-130 Hercules doing supply missions all over Europe and the Mediterranean."
The other members were Lieutenant Commander Barbara Allen Rainey, Captain Jane Skiles O'Dea, Captain Joellen Drag-Oslund, pilot Ana Maria Scott and Captain Judith Neuffer.
And as these pioneers, and Weintraub, can attest, becoming a Navy pilot is no easy feat.
"Military flight training is extremely tough, extremely regimented," she said. "You are graded on everything you do from the minute you step out of the ready room, the entire flight until you land, and you secure the aircraft.
"Everything is being watched. Everything is being graded, and they're constantly being tested because they have to be at that peak proficiency at all times because you know lives are at stake," Weintraub continued. "This is dangerous work."
The six women proved that they could do anything their male counterparts could. And many women have followed in their footsteps, but as Weintraub points out, there are still challenges.
"There is still a strain that's holding to traditional gender roles," she said. "Sexual assault and harassment is a persistent problem."
And gender discrimination isn't the only obstacle some women face, Weintraub said. Minorities also face added challenges.
"As challenging as it's been for women, of course, it's been more so for women of color," she said.
Even so, there are women who are currently pushing through and achieving some milestones in aviation and various military branches, she said.
"Just very recently, a woman named La'Shanda Holmes, who's the first African American female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard, began her career there in 2010," Weintraub said. "She was pretty much the only female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard for quite some time."
Another woman named Madeline Swegle became the first African American female Navy fighter pilot and got her wings last year.
"So again, there is progress," Weintraub said, "and determined women who are making the careers they want, but it is difficult, and it's challenging."
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