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Women in Military Service; the Role of Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith

Each year, June 12 is designated as Women Veterans Recognition Day to celebrate the brave women who have defended our freedom throughout their military service.  This year’s observation was especially significant as it marked the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 that gave women the right to serve as permanent, regular members of the United States Armed Forces.  The people of Maine are proud that the leader who authored and championed that landmark legislation was our own Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

To mark this special anniversary, I joined the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, in a ceremony at the inspiring Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, but the true guests of honor were the women veterans and those who serve today. I was delighted to have the opportunity to describe Margaret Chase Smith’s determination to enable women to have full careers in the American military.

Senator Smith was once asked what is a woman’s proper place.  Her famous answer?  “Everywhere.”  She meant it, and she lived it.

She was the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate.  Throughout her 32-year congressional career, Margaret Chase Smith was a strong advocate of military readiness and took extraordinary measures to understand the challenges facing our patriots in uniform. 

During World War II, then-Congresswoman Smith, as a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, embarked on a 25,000-mile tour of bases in the South Pacific, becoming the first and only civilian woman to sail on a Navy ship during the war.  There is no doubt that witnessing the extraordinary contributions of women’s auxiliary units – the WACs, WAVEs, and WASPs – during the war compelled her to author the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.

Her legislation passed in the Senate by a unanimous vote.  In the House, however, the Armed Services Committee amended the bill to limit women’s service to the reserves.

Congresswoman Smith stood strong.  In her speech on the House floor, she declared: “The issue is simple -- either the armed services have a permanent need of women officers and enlisted women or they do not.  If they do, then women must be given permanent status.”

With the support of military leaders, she carried the day.  Her original bill passed the House, and President Truman signed it into law on June 12, 1948.  Less than a month later, the Navy swore in six women enlistees, the first females to become regular members of our military.

Moving to the Senate after the war, she became the first woman to sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, rising to the position of ranking member.  She also served as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve.  In each of these roles, Senator Smith went everywhere to champion the roles of women in the military.

In 1957, Senator Smith wore a military uniform for a month-long tour of duty to investigate problems related to recruitment and retention of military personnel, with a focus on the progress being made to integrate women into the armed forces.  This tour took her to military bases in four states, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal.

Her tour ended in Los Angeles with another remarkable first.  On December 3, the 60-year-old senator donned a flight suit, parachute, and oxygen mask, and climbed into the co-pilot’s position of an F-100 Super Sabre jet.  Reaching speeds of nearly 1,000 miles per hour, she became the first woman in Congress to break the sound barrier.

Reflecting on that singular experience, Senator Smith later said that doing supersonic barrel rolls at 40,000 feet was exhilarating, but her mind was preoccupied by one thought.  The big red button that activated the ejection seat was right by her elbow.  Don’t accidentally bump it.

Margaret Chase Smith went everywhere so that patriotic women could go anywhere their courage and devotion to duty led them.  Since her time, women have taken on greater challenges and been given exceptional responsibilities.  They serve on the front lines; they fly fighter jets, and they command Navy ships.  Across the branches of service and throughout the ranks, they provide the expertise and the commitment that our national defense requires.

From the American Revolution to our time, more than 3 million women have served in our armed forces.  Today, women make up more than 17 percent of the active duty force and more than 20 percent of the National Guard and reserves.  They contribute immensely to the strength and resilience of our military.

Throughout our nation’s history, American women have stood strong for freedom.  Today, as never before, they are adding inspiring new chapters.  Theirs is the story of citizens answering the call of duty, defending our freedom, and extending the blessings of freedom to others around the world.  They have earned our deepest respect and our enduring gratitude.