Gold Medal Grandmothers Soar Through the Glass Ceiling

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KONA, HI ~ If you haven’t heard of the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots, it’s because 65 years ago these brave women who flew non-combat missions for the U. S. Army were unceremoniously disbanded so that male pilots could have their jobs.

In one of his large compensatory gestures, President Obama signed S. 614 last week, a bill awarding my mother and 1,101 other pioneering women the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for their service during World War II. It soothed an old sting that the WASP and their families could not forget.

And despite the sting, these creative, powerful women broke the glass ceiling anyway, long before Hilary Clinton was even born.

In fact, they soared through the glass ceiling. They crossed the fickle line of social and professional customs which had tried to keep women “in their place,” certainly on the ground. But my Mom, Dorothy Britt Mann, together with her WASP comrades, knew a woman’s place is every place.
 
Dorothy was a perky teenager living on the dusty plains of West Texas when she dreamed of flight. Inspired by Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran, she earned her pilot’s license when the war loomed and flew with the Civil Air Patrol so she would be ready. The call came in 1942 when President Roosevelt and General Hap Arnold gave the go-ahead for the women to fly non-combat military missions.

During Army training in Sweetwater, Texas, Dorothy had to tote pillows to her AT-6 to prop herself forward in the seat enough to reach the airplane pedals. She and her WASP mates flew wing-tip to wing-tip with their brothers, with fewer accidents and accuracy equal to their male peers.

The work was stressful and dangerous – towing targets for rookie gunners, testing new planes, and ferrying broken ones. These women piloted every kind of military aircraft, and logged 60 million miles flying missions across the United States. They freed up male pilots for combat missions, but as more male pilots entered the service, they wanted the women’s stateside jobs.

On December 20, 1944, the WASP were deactivated. These noble women, 38 of whom gave their lives, received no recognition or severance pay. They had to pay their own way home and the women were never awarded full military status. After the war, they could not find flight jobs with new airline companies except as stewardesses.

And for the 38 women who died in the line of duty, their families were saddled with the costs to transport their bodies and arrange burials. It was not until 1977 that the WASP participants were granted veterans’ status.

President Obama, in signing S. 614, is righting this 65-year wrong for both the living and the dead. Of the 1,102 women who received their wings as Women Airforce Service Pilots, approximately 300 are living today. The Congressional Gold Medals will be awarded to all 1,102 pilots and/or their surviving family members.
 
It’s not often that great-great-grandmothers receive medals for flying anything, much less war planes. My mother died in 1998, but I still remember her as someone who extended herself beyond the call of duty.

She told me about being the first cadet in her class to solo in one of the Army aircraft in 1943. When she landed after three touch-and-goes, her classmates greeted her with congratulations.
 
Dorothy told them it was no big deal. “My flight instructor said he was just too scared to go up with me anymore, so he jumped out.” Laughing all the way to the quadrangle, her baymates and friends led her to the Wishing Well, the good-luck fountain, where she was ceremoniously dunked.
 
Only a woman in full possession of her courage comes up with such tales, which, tall or not, undercut the arrogance and intolerance of an age when many people take themselves too seriously.

Life is serious, my mother said, but that’s no reason to lose your sense of humor. She opened conversational, professional, and often philosophical doors which had been closed to her foremothers. To be fair, Dorothy Britt had an amazing mother who had broken through her own set of ceilings.

But Dorothy survived the war, had five children, learned to meditate, laughed exuberantly, cried regularly (she said it kept her regular) and made sense of her life in the twentieth which often seemed to be nothing as much as a vast cauldron of chaotic change.

If you didn’t have some solid spiritual center in the midst of it, you were done. But she did have that center. Her creative, spiritual center remained intact. All her WASP sisters whom I met over the years had that same remarkable confidence.

They radiated the kind of straightforward sense of right and wrong that I respect so much in President Obama. Even in a world which often denied their right to be who they wanted to be, they soared anyway. They soared on the wings of right mind, right action, right relationship.

I feel, not proud — because I think pride too often leads to wrong action – but I feel grateful to be an American who can honor some of its true heroes, even after so many years.

I feel thankful to all who made the effort to take the sting out the legendary WASP story, and who made things right!

I feel elated for my Mom.

The Congressional Gold Medals will be awarded to all 1,102 pilots and/or their surviving family members.
 
Big, Beautiful Blessings,
Dr. Marya
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