Although women today are an integral part of the Air Force, that wasn't always the case.
Despite the smiling faces presented in commercial advertisements of the time, being a member of the Women in the Air Force, or WAF, during the late 1960s and early 1970s wasn’t necessarily easy. Women were facing changing times and an evolution of their roles in society and in the military.
This was true at Dover Air Force Base and throughout the Air Force.
Despite having been incorporated into the Air Force in 1948, during the 1950s even official circles in Washington tended to downplay the need for female airmen -- some said the U.S. military should be all male -- and enlistment in the WAF was declining.
Many claimed women’s roles in industry and the military had declined since the end of World War II, when women returned home after spending four years manufacturing war material in factories all over the country.
Columnist Jack Anderson, writing in the Jan. 2, 1966, edition of Parade magazine, criticized the de-evolution of servicewomen over the prior 20 years.
“During World War II,” Anderson wrote, “American servicewomen were regarded as ‘soldiers in skirts,’ and were treated as such.”
But even when the military did try to recruit women, by the mid-1960s the daughters of military women and Rosie the Riveters who kept American wartime assembly lines moving were being sought more for their good looks and femininity than their ability to serve in wartime, Anderson charged.
Gone were the days when female soldiers trained with rifles and camped out on nightly bivouacs, he said.
The tough training had been abandoned for frilly courses on makeup and hairdos, Anderson claimed.
In her book, “Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution,” Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm wrote the Air Force of the mid-1960s didn’t have a coherent plan on how to deal with women, particularly with the possibility them being thrust into an armed conflict, such as the ongoing Vietnam War.
“In the Air Force, wartime planning guidance provided for WAF to be assigned anywhere in the world,” she wrote. “But when war came in Southeast Asia, no specific policy guidance was forthcoming from Washington.”
While Air Force women did serve in Southeast Asia, 90 percent of them were nurses who flew into Vietnam to evacuate wounded men.
Holm, who had two tours as director of the WAF, noted women wanted to serve, despite the dangers.
A female sergeant, denied an assignment to Vietnam, told her, “If American women were half as fragile as the brass seem to think they are, we never would have conquered the West.”
It took the end of the Vietnam conflict, and rising female activism in the civilian world, to start changing minds in Washington. Even so, old prejudices remained and this chauvinism tended to limit the role women could expect to play while in uniform.
In May 1970, USAF headquarters told 436th Military Airlift Wing commander Brig. Gen. Fred W. Vetter Jr. to expect an influx of women at Dover AFB. While the installation’s directors of base administration and base personnel were senior WAF officers, these new arrivals would be different: young, new to the Air Force and -- most problematic -- unmarried.
As was the case at other bases, these single women would work in different organizations at Dover but be assigned administratively to an all-female unit. Vetter was ordered to locate housing and appoint a female commander and first sergeant to take charge.
The Pentagon told Vetter, “manpower authorization will be found within your command resources,” according to research by 436th Airlift Wing historian Douglass Miller.
Vetter selected newly assigned 2nd Lt. Virginia Logan to be commander of the 436th WAF Squadron Section, which would be activated Sept. 1 of that year. Logan, who had come to Dover on a joint assignment with her C-5 pilot husband, had just weeks to prepare.
“The first thing we had to do was oversee the renovation of two barracks buildings, to get them ready for the women,” the now-retired lieutenant colonel said from her Ohio home.
Logan was given two World War II-era wooden barracks and started renovations. She got a lot of support from Brig. Gen. Kelton M. Farris, who succeeded Vetter in August 1970.
“He was a terrific leader,” she said. “He would come around and see what was going on.”
Although she wanted her female airmen treated on the same level as men, Logan realized there were some things that could not be ignored.
Giving the women a sense of privacy was one of Logan’s priorities and doing so was one of the first roadblocks she had to overcome. The issue: shower curtains.
“I told them they had to figure out how to put curtains in the showers, but they thought that was unnecessary,” Logan said. “I told the general, ‘You’ll have a congressional inquiry when the first 18-year-old writes home to her mother saying she has to take gang showers in the Air Force. You don’t want to be in that position.’”
Logan got her shower curtains and later saw to the installation of a bathtub.
There were other changes, too.
“I told them to get rid of all the mattresses in the barracks,” she recalled. “They’d been in there for years and we needed new mattresses. So they did.”
We don’t want you here’
Rita Berg Kirchoff was one of the initial cadre of WAF airmen assigned to Dover, arriving in October 1970.
Just out of high school, she was looking for a way off her family’s small Wisconsin farm.
“I had gone to mail a letter for my grandmother and the recruiters were there at the post office,” she said. The Air Force recruiter was giving the entrance exams that afternoon and Kirchoff stuck around despite a lack of sleep from working the night shift at a local nursing home.
“I guess I passed,” she recalled. “I scored better in the maintenance area, but they weren’t hiring women in that field, at least not in 1970.”
Kirchoff was assigned as an administrative specialist and sent straight to Dover after basic training.
“I knew where Delaware was, but I didn’t know a thing about Dover,” she said.
Assigned to the 436th Field Maintenance Squadron, Kirchoff learned to prepare performance reports, administrative punishments and discharges, temporary duty orders and meal cards.
It wasn’t an easy transition into military life.
“After I was introduced to everybody, one of the staff sergeants said, ‘We’ve never had a woman up here and don’t want you here. We don’t think you’ll last long.’”
Initially, Kirchoff was required to wear her Class A uniform, which created unwanted attention when she had to climb stairs while wearing a skirt. One of the master sergeants noticed, and after that she was allowed to wear the WAF fatigue uniform, which included a blouse, slacks, and low heeled shoes.
Eventually, things improved as people began to appreciate her work ethic.
“After a few weeks, they knew I worked hard,” she said. “I was quiet and followed orders. After a while, they became more like big brothers.”
‘I was tough’
Georgia-born Lena Prine Pennypacker arrived at Dover in September 1971. Like Kirchoff, she came in from basic training having no formal training in her new career.
“I already could type 98 words a minute, so they must have thought I didn’t need to go to [technical] school,” she said.
Pennypacker was assigned to the 436th Security Police Squadron as an administrative specialist and eventually put in charge of special security files.
But it seemed the unit commander had other plans for her.
“He decided I was going to be his first WAF security policeman,” she said. “He put me out on the gate and then on the flight line guarding airplanes.”
Pennypacker had only her field jacket and WAF fatigues to wear when she was sent outside.
“I threw a fit,” she recalled. “I told him I wasn’t a security policeman, I was admin. I told the commander if he wanted my stripes, he could take them. He really could have hammered me, but after that he left me alone.”
Pennypacker also would fight back against harassment she saw directed at her fellow women.
“I was raised between two boys and I was tough. I just didn’t put up with it,” she said.
Like the other women, Pennypacker was assigned both to her regular unit and to the WAF squadron section.
It could be a Jekyll and Hyde situation, she said.
“We had two commanders and two first sergeants,” she recalled. “We had to go to two commander’s calls. We’d be assigned duties in our units and in the WAF squadron.”
Occasional extra duty as the barracks Charge of Quarters, where she sat up all night, was not a favorite assignment, she said.
“I thought if you’re old enough to go into the military, you don’t need a babysitter,” she said.
Pennypacker continued to pull the duty even after marrying in April 1973 and moving off base.
“The men didn’t have a CQ, but the women sure did. I thought it was stupid.”
A ‘social experiment’
Chris Doughty Muszynski ran smack into a man with an attitude as soon as she set foot on Dover AFB in January 1972.
“I reported to a chief master sergeant, and he said, ‘Welcome to Dover.’ Then he said, ‘This is just a social experiment and I will make sure you don’t last.’”
Muszynski told the chief that she disagreed. But the chief didn’t care.
“He spit on the ground and said, ‘I don’t want any broads in my Air Force.’”
But Muszynski wasn’t having it.
“Respectfully, I told that chief I’d see women flying one day,” she said.
And she did. Muszynski stayed in the Air Force, retiring in January 1998 as a senior master sergeant.
Especially at the beginning of her career, she knew she’d have to work harder than the men. Many felt the term “WAF” was detrimental to both women and the Air Force, she said.
“As long as you were called a WAF, you weren’t integrated. We thought that did a lot of damage,” Muszynski said. “It was like they kind of considered you to be something temporary the more they called attention to it.”
Women didn’t deserve that kind of attitude, she said.
“We were young, ready to please, ready to serve and we walked into an environment that didn’t want us,” she said. “I was really happy when they did away with that term.”
Despite some of the early animus toward women, Muszynski has seen things change, for the most part.
“I think we still have a long way to go as far as leadership positions,” Muszynski said. “You’ve seen career fields open up, even in combat.”
In her career, Muszynski had done things, including being sent into a combat zone during Desert Storm, that would have been unthinkable when she enlisted.
And her prediction to that crusty old chief back in 1972 has come true. Women today are serving in every career field. In 2016, Gen. Lori Robinson became the first woman to lead an Air Force combat command.
“Now that I’m older, I understand his generation more,” she said. “Then, they were taught to take care of women, and I think it was a huge shift for them. They had to accept women as being equals.”
Responding to continuing public pressure in the 1970s, the Air Force slowly began liberalizing rules for its women.
In 1971, women could apply for a waiver to remain in the service instead of being subject to an automatic discharge for pregnancy. In October that year, they began training as security police officers.
Women made another stride forward in August 1972, when Col. Norma E. Brown was named commander of the 6970th Air Base Group at Fort Meade, Md.
Addressing an Air Force Association meeting in September 1972, WAF director Brig. Gen. Jeanne Holm said women had increasingly been assigned jobs once filled only by men.
“If anyone had told me a few years ago the Air Force would have women with families, missile maintenance officers, women generals, most of would have scoffed at the idea,” she said. “It could never happen . . . but it has happened and there is more to come.”
By November 1972, 237 of the 242 enlisted airmen career fields were open to women, while all but five were closed to women officers. More than 16,500 women were in the Air Force at the time.
In June 1973, Holm’s successor WAF director Col. Billie Bobbitt, said that after that year, Air Force women no longer would observe June as the anniversary of the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which created the WAF.
In response, Logan, who by then had been promoted to captain, said, “In the past 25 years we have seen great changes in policy and attitude toward women in the Air Force. Each change, particularly in the past few years, has brought us closer to real equality in treatment, opportunity, and responsibility.”
Also in June 1973, the Department of Defense bowed to a Supreme Court ruling and authorized Air Force women, married to civilians, to receive pay for housing. Up until then, only Air Force men could draw the quarters allowance.
With advances in policy and law, Air Force leaders saw the handwriting on the wall, and in February 1975 announced all WAF units would be deactivated by June.
No longer would single women be assigned to squadron sections that would oversee their “housing, counseling, off-duty supervision, morale and welfare,” according to an article in the Dover AFB “Airlifter” newspaper.
“The new system will give the duty commander full responsibility for women assigned to the unit,” the article said.
As Dover’s WAF squadron section was phased out, a resident consultant for women— a female line officer— and a female dormitory manager was selected, and 1st Lt. Alfred MacArthur, commander of the base headquarters squadron section, became custodial commander of the WAF.
For Dover’s WAF, it was the end of the beginning.