Navy Veteran Mildred Helen McAfee pioneered women’s military leadership as the first director of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, in the Navy and as the first woman to be commissioned in U.S. Navy Reserve.
McAfee was born in 1900 in Parkville, Mo., and lived there until her family moved to Chicago. Her father worked as a reverend, and her grandfather founded Park College (now Park University), motivating McAfee to achieve excellence in faith and higher education.
She attended Vassar College, where she studied economics, sociology and English, and graduated in 1920. She began a career in teaching before receiving her master’s in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1928. In 1936, she was selected president of Wellesley College, where she advocated for holistic liberal arts education and for social equity in women’s education.
In August 1942, McAfee took a leave of absence from Wellesley to take on a new role as the director of the WAVES program. With many male personnel overseas, McAfee, along with many other women, joined the military to work in domestic positions. She was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Navy Reserve and began her role as director of the Women’s Reserve as a lieutenant commander. She helped develop the rules and structure of the WAVES and the Women’s Reserve, having led over 80,000 women by the end of her military career.
McAfee also advocated for Women’s Reserve personnel to be given equal pay and benefits to male personnel. Her work came to fruition in November 1943 when Public Law 183 was established, formally declaring women’s benefits to be equal to men’s.
In 1943, McAfee was promoted to the rank of captain and continued on as director of the WAVES until the war’s end. She was honorably discharged and resigned from the position, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal for her service. After leaving the military, she married the Rev. Dr. Douglas Horton, then dean of the Harvard Divinity School.
McAfee retired from her role as president of Wellesley College in 1948, but continued to serve in a variety of board and church positions. She worked as a UNESCO delegate and as a temporary director of the New York Life Insurance Company, and she co-chaired the National Women’s Conference on Civil Rights. Throughout her life, she was awarded more than 31 honorary degrees for her achievements and advocacy work for women’s and civil rights.
In 1994, McAfee died in New Hampshire. She was 94.
We honor her service.