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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 11 - Capt Marissa Kester, USAFR on "There from the Beginning: Women in the US Air Force"

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Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Margaret Sankey:    Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder on the air, Air University's podcast. Today, our guest is Marissa Kester. Her new book, There from the Beginning: Women in the US Air Force is new from Air University Press. We're so thrilled that you could join us today.

Marissa Kester: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Sankey: I really enjoyed reading your book. It has a really interesting perspective of being written by an Air Force officer from the inside, writing history to include women as full participants in the Air Force military experience. So please tell me what got you interested to undertake this project?

Kester: Well, really, when I switched over from active duty to the reserve back in 2016 and became a historian, I was just trying to get a better baseline understanding of 20th century American history and Air Force history and so just doing the basic readings of what was out there and I kept noticing,
and I don't know if I was really looking for it, but I just kept noticing there was no mention ever of any women involved, and I'm like, "Okay, I know there had to be at least one." It's kind of odd. And so then that got me looking for specific books about women in the Air Force or women through the history of the Air Force, and I just really couldn't find any, and honestly, still today, I keep thinking I'm gonna run across something on Amazon. I noticed it and I have the capacity to do it, I might as well try to do it, so that's what really got me started with the topic, and then once I got going and researching, it was really fascinating to me how it was its own unique topic unto itself and it did really deserve its own book.

Sankey: And you point out that women really have been working with and alongside and for the military since the beginning of US history. Could you expound on what those roles were?

Kester: Yeah, they really have been involved from the beginning, maybe not in a typical way we might think, during even the Revolutionary War, manpower shortages have always been an issue. Anything that was done on the field such like cooking, cleaning, sewing, nursing, all those things, they still needed to be done, and actually during that Revolutionary War, it was common for wives, mothers, daughters, anyone, especially if they didn't have the financial means to support themselves when their spouse or whoever was away, which was generally the case, they were allowed to follow the army around and stay with the army in exchange for those services, like I said. So it was a pretty common thing to do. Women were also hired as employees, particularly in the medical services. Nursing has always been a need during war, having them around there in any conflict, and even things that were not technically conflicts, when you're expanding across the frontier or colonial militias, you always need nursing.
     And so get up to the Civil War and women really started getting more involved, became spies, saboteurs, they still did the same basics, the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, all those types of things, but it really got more involved with the actual blowing things up and helping prisoners escape and the exciting things we think about when we imagine combat or women in conflict. I think these roles often get overlooked because they happen in an era of crisis. So generally, we tend to... The generation that lives out a war experience, by the time they've moved out of popular influence, popular culture, we just have moved on and blessing or curse we forget about it. And so the things that get remembered and written down are often the big picture or opinion analysis, tactical battle maneuvers, those sorts of things. And then, of course, the good old-fashioned combat stories and women are not part of any of those.
     And so, I think it's just perpetuates this idea that women haven't been involved and they don't, for lack of a better word, belong in that arena. So we don't even look for and therefore, we 
don't find stories of women doing important things, and whether that's blowing something up or
doing all the nursing for a unit, they're all important and they're all necessary, but we don't typically
focus on them.


Sankey: That's a great lead into what happens in the late 19th century, that is, women become vital to some technologically-focused jobs as typewriters, as skilled clerical workers, as telephone operators. So what does that mean for the military when they enter World War I?

Kester: Yeah, they do. And the office used to be definitely an exclusively male domain, so that was a big switch. And so as we start to ramp up, we didn't enter World War I until towards the end, but we knew what was going on and we were ramping up, especially at both public and private sector, multiple industries, and so that pulled more men into those and then women that were also doing those jobs, and ironically, that actually created a shortage in women-type jobs, the clerical work that women typically did. Actually, the Navy was the first service to look ahead at that and say, "Well, if we have a shortage of women willing to do clerical work, then we need to get some, we need to get the best because if we're gonna be entering the war, we need that as important. And so they were the first service to actually open up to women and enlist women for that purpose, so it was this funny line of events that led to that.

Sankey: I appreciate your insight and your answer to my previous question about why things tend to get overlooked and how the end of the war usually brings on people's relief to the extent that they don't want to think about it anymore, and you really highlight how that factors into the trajectory of women in air power, because after World War I, people really didn't want to think about the trench warfare or the fighting and so they're attracted to not the aces and the male pilots, they're into the really glamorous women pilots. That's amazing.

Kester: After World War I and after World War II as well, we had this period of economic prosperity and boom and that certainly contributed as well. So after World War I, aviation really took on a life of its own as its own. Industry, it was very much a civilian industry, there were still some debate over whether or not it would be beneficial in the military as a primary tool versus just an auxiliary thing that was available when necessary, and another reason, which is funny, that so many aircrafts were developed and produced during World War I and then after the war, like I said, it was up in the air whether we still needed them or not, and so the military actually sold off a ton of their aircraft to the public to the highest bidder. And so it became fairly popular to have your own aircraft, and so women, particularly women of greater financial means, ended up getting their aircraft license because it was just a fun new way to travel around. And so yeah, Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, there were a few of them that really became celebrities of the day.

Sankey: And those women, Harkness-Love and Cochran are looking at the war clouds on the horizon in the late '30s and thinking about the role that women could play in what they would predict is going to be a big deployment of aircraft. What were they up to?

Kester: Yes, definitely, yeah. Cochran was a big player in this. She was big during the gone years of aviation. She had her own make-up company that she would fly around. And her husband, she married a big tycoon and so she had not only the wealth, but also the power and influence, so she was very involved in the DC political circle. And so, even as early as 1939, she was writing to Eleanor Roosevelt saying that there's gonna be pilot shortages and women can fly, women can do the job of basically letting a man go fight. So she had a lot of road blocks those first few years, a lot of no’s, no ways, not right now, so she ended up taking advantage of the opportunity to take some women and actually go over to help Britain, and they had a women's auxiliary pilot unit that they were already flying over there. So she went over there for a little bit and while she was gone, Nancy Love split in there. So Nancy Love was a great pilot in her own right. She worked at the Air Transport Command at the office in Baltimore.
      Her husband was a reserve officer in the Army Air Corps. And one day while he was at work, he, chatting to the guy next door, who turned out to be the commander of the ferrying division, and he just mentioned that his wife commutes to her job by plane every day from DC to Baltimore and back, and that really piqued this guy, general, or at the time he was colonel, and piques his interest, they got together, he met up with Nancy Love and they had a few meetings, they brought up a proposal and they got a whole, or they did, they got the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the WAFS, established while Cochran was gone. So this all happened fairly quickly. And so the WAFS was established through the Air Transport Command, Cochran got back from Britain within a week or two of this being established, and she was like, "I was promised some things a few years ago that if there ever was a women pilot unit that I would be in charge of it." And so another one was created where she was in charge.
      So we went from, "I don't foresee women being agents in this field" to having two separate units within the span of a year. And so both those units got up and running and they, eventually, the next year, were combined into the WAFS, which is what everyone remembers and thinks about, but they had a little bit different missions. So they were busy, they were busy, but if it wasn't for persistence on both ends, I don't know if it would have happened on its own.


Sankey: What sort of work were they doing?

Kester: The Women's Flying Training Detachment was, as the name suggests, more of a training detachment. That was Cochran's unit where she trained women pilots once they got through the selection process and she trained them in the exact same way that the male army air force pilots were being trained. And then Nancy Love's unit, the WAFS, they jumped right into ferrying. So they were ferrying planes from bases within the United States. So they never left the US, but they were moving aircraft all over the country depending on what was needed logistics-wise.

Sankey: A theme throughout your book is that a lot of these decisions are made for manpower purposes, to free up men to do combat jobs, and in the case of the women pilots, they're doing that exceptionally well, but that creates a fairly ugly backlash.

Kester: Yeah, it really does. By 1943, so again, we're not that far into it, still middle of World War II, there was a full-scale slander campaign going on, the most common accusation being that military women were essentially uniform prostitutes. So it was actually so widespread that the War Department asked the FBI to investigate because they thought it might be an effort to undermine the morale of the American military. And so the FBI found out that, nope, it was within the military primarily because of poorly-enforced anti-fraternization policies, particularly the officer men, they were not being punished for having relations with any women enlisted or officer, and so that, of course, easily sparks the rumor that, Oh, women are just doing whatever they need or want to do to get a job or promote or whatever it was.
      And so, somewhat of a childish rumor mill, but it is amazing how that kind of stuck really with women in the military for a long time, but I would argue even today, I'm sure there's still a little bit of that stereotype lingering, so it's pretty amazing what those things can do.

Sankey: After the war, just as you've talked about after World War I or really any of the previous wars, the women’s services are dissolved, but the US stands on the brink of the Cold War with fewer men available and a fairly severe necessity to keep the military strong. Could you tell us about the Women's Armed Services Integration Act and both how it included women, but what sort of limitations were built into it?

Kester: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there was. There was this juxtaposition between military capability being where it was and what it wasn't and then the public rhetoric that was going on as the Cold War was building up quickly, and so tons of men had been demobilized and sent home after World War II, and another factor was the low birth rate during the 1930s during the Great Depression, meant that the number of young healthy men available for service during the '50s, really coming up soon, was gonna be smaller than had been previously available and so...
      There was still a ton of congressional and public debate over the issue of allowing women to be in a peacetime military, but the Act was eventually signed June 1948, and the idea was that women could provide, same idea in World War II, kind of a backup, manpower shortage, gap-fill, free-a-man-to-fight type thing. And so having them already in the military in a peacetime function meant they could be mobilized much quicker in the event of a large-scale conflict if that happened. That was kind of really the purpose and that's how most people viewed women in the military for, I would say, the first 20 years until really, probably the late '60s, early '70s. But within the Act, it wasn't a free pass at all. There were still a bunch of limitations because, like I said, female service members were still thought of as auxiliary, temporary, just in case, kind of the backup worst-case- scenario type thing.
     And so some of the main ones where that women could only constitute no more than 2% of the regular force strength and female officers only 10% of that 2%, so as you can imagine, that created significant promotion bottlenecks later on. Within each service, there was only allowed to be one female O6 colonel, and she was only allowed to hold that position on a temporary basis, so that was meant to be kind of like the women's director of the women's program in each service. The enlistment age was higher for women and if a woman had any dependents at all under the age of 18, doesn't matter the custody arrangement, none of it mattered, they were not allowed to join. Additionally, they did not receive any type of spousal benefits. They were allowed to be married and joined with a waiver, but they did not receive any benefits for their spouse unless their husband relied on them for over 50% of their joint income, so that was a big...
     Those two policies right there, that really stayed until the '70s, were kind of a big deal. And additionally, the service secretaries, each service secretary was authorized... There's a clause in the Act that says specifically, "They're authorized to terminate the regular commission or enlistment of any female member at any time for any unspecified reason." Kind of a big thing. And so the idea generally how that was enforced with pregnancy, so without coming out and saying, if a woman were to become pregnant, she was just essentially asked to leave. And at that time most women wanted to leave, so it wasn't really as big of a deal as we might think of it now. And then the last big one was, of course, women were not allowed to serve on combat vessels or aircraft, which that is still being unraveled today, right, that's kind of a recently overcome thing.


Sankey: The newly independent Air Force really does need those just-in-time professionals when the Korean War breaks out, and one of the iconic job descriptions in terms of women's role in the military is serving in those MASH units, which becomes maybe the thing that Americans think about most with the Korean War. So how does that really cement women in the Air Force?

Kester: Yeah, medical air evacuation, it was kind of established, if you will, it became practiced over the course of World War I, so by the end of World War I, we were using it regularly, but the Korean War was really the first war where it was kind of used start to finish, and certain processes and procedures were really allowed to be put into place. And the Air Force took the lead on that, because it was now a separate service and medical air evacuation was a huge mission for the Air Force during the Korean War, and nurses aboard those aircraft, they were kind of the heroes of that story and they were the only ones who were allowed to serve in the Korean theatre during that war as well, so kind of another example. And really nurses, of course, need their own entire separate work because... I didn't really discuss nurses as much because it really is its own topic because they have been doing everything this whole time and it's just... It's funny how it's not really considered.

Sankey: In my own work, I ran across the story about Maxwell Air Force Base, which of course is one of General LeMay's favorite places, and he really didn't like hearing women air traffic controllers, and the best air traffic controller at Maxwell was a woman and whenever he would fly in, he would insist that she get off the radio and someone, a male voice, relay her instructions and that was really striking to me. Was this fairly typical of the '50s and '60s at the time?

Kester: From everything I've heard about LeMay, he had the reputation of being particularly anti-women in the Air Force in general, so that is not a surprise. I've also heard similar stories, and so I think there was an element of, policies would change, in anticipation of his involvement or his seeing them because everyone kind of knew his attitude, but I would argue it probably was along typical line of thinking at the time. The irony was that we were still... The Air Force were training army women to be air traffic controllers, but they would not let air force women be air traffic controllers. So I think it was a mix of leadership and just the culture at the time, yeah.

Sankey: Your book also includes some of the really ridiculous obsession with the way that Air Force women look, and it really reminded me of the same kind of restriction in civil aviation that was put on flight crew and flight attendants. What were some of those restrictions on what they could wear and how they could act?

Kester: Oh yeah, that was a big focus. One of the days I spent researching at the National Archives in DC, I came across an air training command WAF handbook, and so I spent the afternoon giggling my way through that. Just almost all of it was dedicated to how to wear your make-up, what's the ways you can tweak uniform, hairstyles, and then how to dress when you're not in uniform, everything you could think of. There are articles, of course, about managing your weight. That's just when salad bars started showing up in the mess halls. They actually worked with cosmetic manufacturers to curate and recommend specific shades and products for servicewomen. Newsletters, WAF newsletters gave recommendations on diet and uniform, where it really was an obsession, and I think a lot of it just had to do that we were in a relatively peacetime military with a lot of money and there's always got to be something to pick on and worry about, and that's an easy target. And of course, there's a little hypocritical in some aspects such as diet and weight and appearance, but yes, it definitely was the practice to focus on that and to reward the women who were viewed as the most attractive, those were the ones that were picked to work in the high level offices or have the better jobs or those sorts of things.

Sankey: As a historian, you do a great job in showing the interaction of bigger society developments and then the way that the military reflects them, and so when we get to the 1960s, there are huge peoples in terms of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism for women. As the military responds to that and the demands put on them from Vietnam, we had Public Law 90-130. What does that mean for Air Force women?

Kester: Yeah, well, thank you. That's just the way, to me it made the most sense is to look at the big picture and then distill it down from there because they do all, of course, affect each other. And so, PL 90-130 effectively removed a lot of the rank restrictions on, particularly female officer careers, but really it was the first major policy change concerning women in the military since the Integration Act. So that's almost 20 years later. That's a long time. The new law opened up promotions to Colonel and General ranks and like I said, removed some of the 10% and 2% ceilings, which up until that point had actually never really been an issue. The 10% officer ceiling was an issue because of what they called the hump from World War II. So women that joined World War II by the time we get to this time period, they are capped at that ceiling, but the 2% strength ceiling, that was never really in danger of being broken at that time.
     So, like I said, female officer careers definitely had the biggest effect right away. Of course,
there was backlash to changing those laws. The biggest thing was that people viewed it as kind of a women's promotion law, so now that women could promote to these ranks, there would be a push to promote them to these ranks, there's always that fear that someone's gonna take someone else's spot. And at the time, there were definitely many male and female officers who really believed that 0-5, Lt Col, was as much rank as a woman could handle given that women were non-combatants. So it wasn't so much an outright victory for women as, again, we're looking back at it now saying like, "Oh, great, that's great for them." But at the time it really was a controversial decision to make, but of course, looking back, it was really the first and what started to be a series of changes concerning women in the military.


Sankey: Another Maxwell connection, of course, is the Supreme Court case changing the way the military treated women with dependents comes out of Alabama. I particularly enjoyed that our Academic Services Director went and did an oral history interview with Ms. Frontiero. Can you talk about that case?

Kester: Yeah, I'd love that. I'd love to go back and listen to that. Yeah, that was a big deal at the time. She was, I believe, a physical therapist. And basically, with that law that husband/dependents were not eligible for the women to receive spousal benefits for them. And so as PL 90-130 opening up, limiting rank restrictions, and opening up those pathways suddenly made certain things like command positions or schools or different experiences more important because now you needed those in order to promote. Now that women could promote, they needed those other experiences. And so along those same lines, as the women were starting to be viewed more as serving in their own right, it just became apparent that, "Okay, if I'm serving in my own right, then my spouse doesn't matter if they're male/female, they're still a spouse, they're still a dependent, they're still along for this ride with me, they also need to have equal benefit." And so, that was one of the first big changes for Family Policy and then a few others followed soon after.

Sankey: You talk about the schools and other things that would be needed to promote, and of course, in the Air Force, one of the gold rings of that is integrating the Air Force Academy. So what kind of taboos get broken? What sort of changes have to happen for that to roll out in the 1970s?

Kester: Yes, absolutely. That was one of the big last thresholds. All the academies at the same time opened up their doors because they ultimately had to. And so prior to this, of course, that was a funny thing, there was a lot of congressional public debate about the topic, all three military departments, the DOD, President Nixon, they all publicly opposed admitting women to the service academies citing the argument that service academies prepare men for combat and women are not allowed in combat, therefore they do not need to go to the service academies. With any scrutiny whatsoever, you would realize that that is not necessarily true. That's what they like to tell themselves, but most of those men who graduated from the academies never went to combat, they were not eligible for aviation, and so they never did combat aviation, which again, the whole storyline of why we don't like women in the academy. But the Air Force actually, from the sources I read, they were officially opposed, but unofficially, I wouldn't say approved maybe, but they were ready for it, they knew it was coming, that eventually women would be admitted.
     When the law passed, when public law passed, the Air Force was the one that took the lead and really ran with it, they went to schools and recruited women, they set up a cadre of lieutenants who went through the summer camp so that they could then be the upper classmen for these first group of women that went through. The attrition rate of women from the Air Force Academy was the lowest of all the services, so the Air Force took it and ran with it, which I think ended up being beneficial for everyone.


Sankey: 1976 is the next big milestone, which amazing for the Air Force is when women returned to the cockpit as pilots. Why has this fallen off the radar after big celebrities like Cochran and Love and women in these other jobs, why was being a pilot off limits?

Kester: I think a lot of it is similar to the academy, the story we like to tell ourselves, the Air Force is really formed with the idea of it being an elite aviation institution, and so it wasn't gonna be as big, it was really focused in on specific mission sets and so they generally had no problem recruiting the high-quality, high-caliber elite "Men" that they needed and wanted to fly aircraft, and so there really was no need.
     No manpower shortage, no need to have women flying. And then at a certain point, that becomes more of a storyline rather than a practical view of the topic, and so both the Navy and the Army actually opened up pilot slots to women before the Air Force. Again, this is probably more symbolic than practical at this point. A second part of it was that the Integration Act, that last clause I talked about that banned women from flying aircraft in combat. So a big part of the Integration Act was that it was left fairly generic so the services could apply the rules as they saw fit to their specific mission sets. And so the Air Force took that clause very seriously, they chose to interpret it with the biggest fan or the most risk-averse necessary and determining that pretty much all aviation was related to combat as that was, the Air Force mission, therefore, all aviation is off limits to women.
     So again, it was a few generalized assumptions and there was no need to challenge that assumption until the other services started doing it and then it was like, "Okay, I guess we have to re-examine this last bastion", which the Air Force really has been the first in line to change a lot of policies when it comes to women. So this, this is one of the exceptions to the rule, was the aviation field.


Sankey: When I was on a tour at the Ronald Reagan Historic Site in Cooperstown, North Dakota, showing an '80s vintage missile capsule, one of the oral histories there was talking about the kind of local scandal when the missile capsule crews were integrated, and that the two Air Force couples actually publicly went out to dinner to demonstrate to the whole community that they were okay sealing their spouses underground together for 24-hour shifts and that just struck me as being not just very, very '80s but pretty typical of the breeze that people had about, "What are women going to do, and what are the risks of putting them in these situations?" Did you run into other things like this?

Kester: Oh, absolutely, yeah, that was definitely... I feel like most of the literature I ran into about the integration of missile crews was about the kind of public acceptance of this and the spouses being upset and whatever any unit did to mitigate this, so that's pretty funny. And I could see from the perspective of being a woman in the Air Force doing the job, you're like, "Please, come on." But then from the outside, from being a civilian woman, especially if you have a military experience, this is not a typical scenario. Most women do not have their husbands going and work overnight with a woman in a closed-off unit, so it makes sense really from both sides and the public broaching of the topic. And again, I think, like I mentioned earlier, the stereotype from World War II of service for men, I think most people would not still feel that way, but there is that lingering idea of, it's unfamiliar for most women and men, of course. Not many people join the military statistically, but it's just unfamiliar world, and so if you can't really understand it, and if you don't really align with it, it just makes it... You distrust it a little more, and I think that was definitely highlighted when it comes to spouse relationships in that, the way they come across in your community.

Sankey: In the late 1980s, warfare really changes pretty dramatically. Operation Just Cause in Panama, and the first Gulf War really underscore that in modern warfare, there's no safe behind the lines in the way that the military had categorized who was a combatant and a non-combatant. What effect did that have about thinking in terms of women and their deployment?

Kester: Yeah, absolutely, and that has, of course, become even more the case over the last 30 years. So a big difference with the Gulf War was the introduction of live news broadcasts, where they actually showed women all geared up in the same scenario as men facing equal danger as men. And so, this is something that the general public doesn't think about on a regular basis, doesn't worry about on a regular basis, but then when you see it on the news, it requires a big perception shift and really it exposed the big contradictions in policies concerning women. You have the visual right in front of you, of wait a second, women are not allowed to be in combat but they are. And so they can do certain things like fly unarmed targets, like refueling tankers or AUX over enemy territory, they can launch ICBMs with nuclear warheads attached, but they can't deliver conventional weapons from an aircraft and they can't therefore get the applause and the promotions and all the benefits of doing those dangerous jobs. So they're still in danger, but without the full freedom and therefore recognition. So like I said, it just really exposed that contradiction and that paradox there, which then required action, because then people were aware of it in the women's groups and DACOWITS, and then we just had to evolve from that point.

Sankey: The Gulf War also sees the US in the middle of a spectrum in which some of our NATO allies are much further along in terms of integrating women into their services, but we also have allies who are very much against integrating women into deployment in their countries, like the Saudi restrictions on women's dress and some other demands that were made. What kind of frictions in the overall operation did that create?

Kester: Yeah, there was. There was definitely that, women were deployed to a military base doing their mission, but then when they went out in the local community had to adhere to certain social customs, and some women really had a problem with that. Martha McSally, I believe she was a Major at the time. She was one of the primary ones, the main stories you hear, who really raised the issue and took that to court and basically, this rule that women didn't have to adhere to those custom because they were military women on a US base. So that was...
     I think it just comes back to what was necessary in the moment. So, there's always the ideas 
of what women can or can't, should or shouldn't be doing in the military or other nations, we look at other nations and see what they're doing, and I think it just ultimately always comes back to the mission at hand and what is kind of required. Because the topic of women in the military, it's just the theme I kept just noticing over and over again, was... Of course, there's people that are opposed to integration, and of course there's people that are all for it, but most people are somewhere in the middle, which means that most of the time, nothing happens until it needs to happen, so there needs to be some sort of push in one direction or another, and so I think that's just a great example, a moment in time, of like an example on one side, an example on other and we're kind of in the middle still trying to work out what we want to do essentially with our military force.

Sankey: That's a great pivot to the kind of missions undertaken in the 1990s where peacekeeping, humanitarian, and relief missions, it turns out that women really interject some advantages into those kind of operations, right?

Kester: They do. Humanitarian missions are definitely one subset that just require a somewhat softer touch. And of course, men are capable of doing all the things women are when it comes to that, but the value of having women alongside and in the units at this point was really... The advantages were obvious. There's been multiple studies illustrating that people in general tend to trust women more than men for whatever reasons that are outlined in the study, but I think at this point it became obvious that. But not only is that beneficial, but it could be leveraged at some point too. So having women in the units and going out into the community and actually being in danger again, like what might be considered a combat or line of fire situation, was oftentimes the best way to handle a situation. And then, of course later, we saw this in Afghanistan, where the army put together teams of women that would go out in the community and those were hugely important part of the strategy overall.

Sankey: Once again, civil society includes more women in business and technology roles and civil aviation, and so the Air Force and the military overall find themselves in a position where they have to be much more competitive with the civilian workforce, so what kind of changes did they attempt and succeed in regarding family and dual career realities?

Kester: Like I said earlier, once we started really allowing and viewing women as serving in their own right in the military, equal to men, fully, all equal individual service members, it just became more and more apparent certain policies that needed to change, and once you change one, it becomes apparent something else needs to be changed too. And so the 1970s were full of changes around pregnancy, women were allowed to have waivers when they became pregnant rather than being forced to separate, dependent policies like we talked about, and then it kind of got quiet for a while and then, like you mentioned, really around the early 2000, there was a lot of shuffling to keep in step with the civilian, public institutions, private institutions.
     And so since then, tons of policy reform around families, and of course that always specifically affects women because women are the ones that are pregnant and have children, and so join spouse, single parent policies, pregnancy, maternity, paternity leave policies, breastfeeding, all of those things. And a big part of that is really just that the Air Force, or all the services, becoming all volunteer services. You just have to be more in touch with your pool of applicants and your pool of people you might want to recruit into your service, because it is kind of more of the civilian line of thinking where you need to recruit and retain, and so you need to offer something that someone is interested in. And so for that, you have to pivot and you have to work with what people want out of their lives and lifestyle versus kind of force something on them.

Sankey: In your book, you talk at some length about the great work that the Barriers Analysis Working Group (BAWG) and the Women's Initiative Team (WIT) do to figure out what people want and what sort of obstacles stand in the way of them being the best contributors they can be to a great Air Force, what are some of the things that have come out of their work?

Kester: Oh yeah, they have been hugely, hugely helpful, and successful, I would say, in identifying kind of barriers to service, barriers to recruitment or retention, anything that might affect women or minorities, there's a few different subsets of these groups, but different focuses. But the ones that are specific for local women, changes in maternity uniforms, creating body armor that actually fits women versus just small male body armor, those sorts of things, the new hair policy that was just released earlier this year, I'm missing so many more. And really, there have been quite a few that have happened behind the scenes that don't get a lot of attention because they don't affect a woman's life right now, but they absolutely are setting the stage for difference to be made in the future. And so yeah, those teams have been very successful and really, I can say having been a part of them and having sat back and observe them, they are just... They are full of motivated people, men and women who really know what they're doing and so it's fun to watch.

Sankey: The US is moving out of a focus on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency into one in which the planning and the focus is on strategic competition. And so what does that mean in terms of having women in the Air Force? What does their presence mean for those kind of anticipated large-scale operations?

Kester: I think when it comes to looking at the pivot we're going through in the moment for the last few years, the more we can embrace diversity in all its forms, and not just the politicized versions of race, gender, those obvious ones. But really like diversity of thought, of skill set, of background, of perception, those kind of finer things that are harder to pick out of a line-up, but just being more open to different ideas and ideals, the better off and more prepared we'll be in the long run. So a way I relate this in the book is, for example, allowing women when they become mothers, not viewing that as a, "Okay, now how are we gonna fit this new role you have into the role of the military?"
     And kind of switching that around and looking at, "Okay. When a woman becomes a mom, she has access now to all these additional super powers that are really beneficial to war fighting and to strategy and to leading a unit or just whatever you want to apply it to." And so, it's kind of a mindset shift into looking at the benefits versus having square into a round hole type thing, where you're just trying to make what is fit into something that isn't really relevant anymore. And so I think the military as a whole shifting... We're only 50 years away from the military becoming an all-volunteer force, it's really not a lot of time, we're still figuring it out. And with the rate of change when it comes to technology, social change, there's multiple undercurrents going on all at once. And so being open and adaptable, and of course, people don't like that, it feels such a big deal in the moment, but then in five, 10 years, you won't even really remember, you'll be like, "Of course, that happens." So it's stepping back and having a bigger picture view of this whole thing and looking at what ways can we shift that better serve the mission at hand? What do we need to do, and then who do we need to help us do that? Versus coming at it from an institutionalized perspective, where it's like, "Well, this is what we have and we need to make it work." If that makes sense.


Sankey: One of the most fun recruiting tools I've seen in a long time was the Air Force taking their pilot training next virtual rigs to Captain Marvel screenings and getting young women and little girls interested in being pilots. How is the Air Force tailoring its recruiting and its opportunities in
STEM to attract women and building that force of the future that they need? And I include the Space Force here too.


Kester: Yeah, those are really cool ways they have done that in the past two years. I think at the end of the day, humans are hardwired for stories, we are storytellers, and we live our lives based on the stories that we are told about our community, about who we are in our community, collective story, you have the National American story. And so I think the more we can leverage that innate need for a coherent story deep in our psyche, the more you're really gonna just naturally ignite that in women. One of my favorite topics to come from this book was remembering really that across ancient cultures, all ancient cultures, we have these warrior goddesses who were the goddess of not only war, but also love and fertility, and so these ideas that we think now are opposite ends of the spectrum, haven't always been the case, we haven't always perceived it that way.
     And so I think the more you can return to that and have women who are fully women and fully warriors at the same time, and you can do that through stories, through books, through fiction, through movies, through TV series, whatever it is, whatever... All of them really, the more the better, the more you're going to naturally just make that an accepted story line and the collective narrative that we have versus something that is unique and special and maybe not to be trusted. It's like, "Oh, no, this is totally acceptable. This is part of the collective story." So I think leveraging that is a great place to start.


Sankey: I can't think of a better way to wrap things up. Is there anything you'd like to add as we finish up this interview?

Kester: No, I don't think so. That was fun. I could talk about all this stuff obviously for a long time. I hope I didn't inundate. I hope it's not too much or little information but no, that was great. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Sankey: Well, and this is what we have to say, is if you want more, go download her book. This is Wild Blue Yonder on the Air. I'm Dr. Margaret Sankey. Our guest has been Marissa Kester who's book There from the Beginning: Women in the US Air Force is available from AU Press. Thank you for joining us.

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