NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. – “Women don’t get as far as men do because they fritter around. They have to spend money and time on clothes and cosmetics and things like that. They just about get started and they fall in love, too. Men are different. When they start flying they stick to it. If they have a girl, they bring the girl to the field. Pretty soon she’s flying, too “â€ sometimes.”
Evelyn Kilgore, a flight instructor at Tri-City Airport in southern California, made this assessment of female candidates for wartime pilot instruction in 1942, at the beginning of U.S. mobilization for World War II. According to the Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space publication United States Women in Aviation, 1940-1985, Kilgore was a Civilian Pilot Training Program instructor, training women as pilots, many of whom would go on to support critical military training, ferry and supply missions. Though her comments are ironic in context of her position, these words reflected the prevailing views of American society at the time.
Kilgore’s words ignored the achievements of pioneering women, who had advanced every area of aviation from the infancy of heavier-than-air aircraft to the “hero age” of flight in the 1920s and ’30s. Women had competed right alongside men in breaking records and expanding the horizons of flight at a dizzying pace, just as they had taken on the unsung roles that made flight safer, more useful and widespread. And — though they were seldom recognized by their contemporaries — women had served the military in every conflict, sometimes in combat, from the Revolutionary War onward.
Despite her own prejudices, female pilots such as Kilgore were actually laying the foundations for women to serve in the future U.S. Air Force. They faced parallel challenges to the service itself, which was, at the time, also exceeding expectations and overcoming biases on its path to become a separate service in 1947.
Women would continue to overcome challenges, from the time they were accepted in limited roles into the military through President Truman’s Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, to the time the separate status of military women was ended in 1976 and beyond.
Today, in another time of armed conflict for America, women are an integral part of the Air Force. It is important to highlight their role because the biased viewpoints of the past, and even those of the present, must continue to be challenged for progress to be made in the future. History is full of cases where those who said something cannot be done are proven wrong by those who are already doing it.
These women’s service represents the huge number of roles now performed by Air Force women with the same integrity, personal sacrifice and excellence expected of all Airmen, male or female. Collectively, they reflect their hard-won place in the history of the service, history which continues to be made through their service to our nation.