Making waves: CAPT Eleanor L’Ecuyer

On this important date for women in the military – the anniversary of the SPARs – the Coast Guard celebrates all of these trailblazing women by highlighting the noteworthy efforts of Capt. Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein, 7th Coast Guard District Public Affairs.

During World War II, women sought to contribute to the war effort, often taking jobs at factories to backfill behind men who had shipped out overseas. In 1942, landmark legislation allowed them to serve their country as members of the armed forces.

During World War II, women sought to contribute to the war effort, often taking jobs at factories to backfill behind men who had shipped out overseas. In 1942, landmark legislation allowed them to serve their country as members of the armed forces.

Frustrated by her clerical work as a civilian in 1944, Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer volunteered to join the Coast Guard in Boston, in the midst of her workday at Boston Edison Company.

“I went for a walk at the suggestion of my boss and came back a member of the Coast Guard,” she said beaming, some seven decades later.

The U.S. Coast Guard officially launched its women's reserve Nov. 23, 1942. SPARs was an acronym crafted from the first letters of the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, Aways Ready. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The U.S. Coast Guard officially launched its women's reserve Nov. 23, 1942. SPARs was an acronym crafted from the first letters of the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, Aways Ready. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

L’Ecuyer, 90, served as a pharmacist’s mate at Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, Wash., until her discharge in 1946. While many women made their personal marks upon the Coast Guard, L’Ecuyer, an articulate gal with a sharp wit, forever impacted policies and increased opportunities for women serving in the Coast Guard.

Following her discharge after the war, L’Ecuyer returned to Boston, activating her G.I. Bill benefits and earning a law degree at Suffolk University. But finding employment as a female attorney proved challenging against the backdrop of 1950. Marriage and birthrates were increasing in post-war America. A postage stamp cost $.03, a dozen eggs $.65, the average household income was
$3, 216 and the average home cost $14, 500. While nearly one million women entered the workforce each year, most found employment in the clerical field.

Employment prospects in law looked bleak, but thumbing through the newspaper one day, an ad caught L’Ecuyer’s attention. It sought Coast Guard veterans for direct commission, who had received additional specialty training in the post-war years. However, L’Ecuyer was told by recruiters, the ad applied to males only. Undaunted, she made her case.

“They let me take the test anyway, thinking I’d fail,” she said.

The SPARs recruited nearly 12,000 women whose work evolved from primarily clerical work to assignments in nearly four dozen specialty ratings. Modeled after the U.S. Navy’s WAVES, women were not initially allowed to serve outside the continental United States, although that eventually changed to include assignments to Alaska and Hawaii.

The SPARs recruited nearly 12,000 women whose work evolved from primarily clerical work to assignments in nearly four dozen specialty ratings. Modeled after the U.S. Navy’s WAVES, women were not initially allowed to serve outside the continental United States, although that eventually changed to include assignments to Alaska and Hawaii.

A few months passed while the venerable L’Ecuyer took a slew of physical exams. Ironically, on Apr. 1, 1951, she received two letters bearing good news.

“First I learned I’d passed the Coast Guard test,” she said. “Later that day, I learned I’d passed the Massachusetts Bar.”

Ensign L’Ecuyer was told she’d received a commission, but women could not attend Officer Candidate School. “Eventually, someone realized I was a lawyer, and I was promoted to lieutenant junior grade,” she said.

Assigned to Washington, D.C., she became the first female attorney hired by the United States Coast Guard, though she did not directly serve in that role. Her legal training would serve her – and future generations of female Coasties – very well. She wrote successful challenges to several policies that would increase career potential for women in the Coast Guard. One was her determination that being pregnant was not a disabling condition and therefore, should not be grounds for discharging women. Another was that couples should be allowed to co-locate. Another challenge she filed questioned the policy limiting women to serving only 20 years.

“After that one, the commandant asked if I had any other paperwork I might want to follow,” said L’Ecuyer, smiling.

She served until 1971, rising to the rank of captain – the highest rank a woman could achieve at the time. She also holds the distinction of being the longest serving SPAR. Yet, when asked if she realized how her determinations had impacted future generations, she turned reflective.

“It was the right thing to do, and the time had come” she said. “I put my law degree to good use.”

Prototype women's uniforms from the 1970s. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Prototype women's uniforms from the 1970s. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

L’Ecuyer made another – perhaps more visible – impact on the Coast Guard. In the 1970s, she was responsible for upgrading women’s uniforms, which had not been revamped although the men’s uniforms had. A stylish change to the timeworn Navy style came about after she contacted a friend working in Hollywood The result was a meeting between L’Ecuyer and eight-time Academy-award winning costume designer, Edith Head. Though L‘Ecuyer went to Hollywood on her own time, and Head agreed to re-design the uniforms free of charge, the effort raised a few eyebrows.

“My boss said, a bit angrily, ‘I doubt we can afford that,’” she recalled. “I simply told him, ‘I don’t know why not, she’s agreed to do it free of charge’. And then it was done,” she said.

L’Ecuyer retired prior to implementation of the stylish tailoring changes, but recalled working with the famed costume designer.

“We sat on the floor of her Hollywood office looking through photographs I’d brought,” she said. “I remember the sketch pad, the scraps of material and the mannequins,” she said. “Suddenly, there was a knock at her door. Miss Head reminded her secretary that she’d been told to hold all calls,” said L’Ecuyer. “’But it’s Katie Hepburn on the phone,’ said the secretary.”

Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer, left, featured in the June 1967 issue of Reservist magazine.

Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer, left, featured in the June 1967 issue of Reservist magazine.

Head took the call, but spent ample time sketching her ideas for Coast Guard uniform changes, tucking her feet under her as L’Ecuyer explained the photos. She recalls the racing stripe on Coast Guard cutters caught the eye of the celebrity costume designer. That led to the inclusion of a smart light blue ascot with the signature Coast Guard racing stripe. Other changes included the addition of a light blue, short-sleeved polyester top with gold-tone buttons, pockets and a sewn-on belt in the back.

“She was fascinating…definitely one of the more interesting people I met while in the Coast Guard,” said L’Ecuyer.

L’Ecuyer made her most indelible mark on policies regulating the service of women. At the time, she made a few waves, but forever impacted women serving the nation’s oldest continuous seagoing service. “That,” said the Sun City Center, Fla., resident “makes me proud.”

Like the SPARs, of which she was a loyal member, L’Ecuyer’s legacy is worth noting.

Author’s note: The perseverance of women such as Capt. Eleanor L’Ecuyer has made it so much easier for women to serve. On this week of Thanksgiving, and as a member of the Coast Guard Reserve myself, I offer my personal gratitude for her groundbreaking efforts.

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  • Chuck Polk, CAPT, USCGR(Ret)

    I had just been in the Coast Guard Reserve three years & recently advanced to PS1 when I met CAPT L’Ecuyer (as I recall, pronounced “LACK’-wee-YAY’”) at Coast Guard Headquarters. I was serving on active duty that summer, the first year since the end of the draft. Although my first two months were at Base Miami Beach, the third and final month was at CGHQ. While there and being shown around the old Nassif Building, I was introduced to the legendary SPAR Captain. Though time dims the memory, I seem to recall she was working either in Legal or Reserve Affairs. I see in PA1 Silverstein’s article CAPT L retired in ’71, so she must have been on one of her many post-retirement assignments. Clearly, she was well-known by then as a trailblazer for women in the Service Components. As history and PA1 Silverstein have recorded, her courageous efforts over many decades of service had a major impact on the Coast Guard’s decision in 1976 to be the first military service to integrate women into its Active and Reserve Components. Without her hard work against such daunting odd’s, who knows how much longer it would have taken to reach that milestone? My hat’s off to CAPT L’Ecuyer in her 90th year!

  • Doug Clapp, CAPT, USCGR(Ret)

    Bravo Zulu on PA1 Judy Silverstein’s wonderful piece on CAPT L’Ecuyer and her indelible impact on women’s equality in the Coast Guard. She was a great role model and mentor for many USCG/USCGR folks. I was a brand spanking new Ensign in 1972, assigned as Chief of the Foreign Training Section at CGHQ…and OCS classmate (now RADM) Duncan Smith was assigned under CAPT L’Ecuyer’s supervision. I believe she was Chief of the Reserve Administration Division at the time. I remember Duncan had great respect for her ability and her drive…and I suspect she was also a strong supporting/encouraging factor in Duncan’s pursuing completion of his law degree off duty at Georgetown. Another of CAPT L’Ecuyer’s protégées at that time was then-Petty Officer Becky Montgomery (now Colburn), who retired a few years ago as a Captain. Becky appears (as newly-minted Ensign Montgomery) on far left in the picture of the Edith Head prototype uniforms.

  • CDR Dave Allen

    I had the great pleasure to meet and interview CAPT L’Ecuyer a couple of years ago in preparation for the Reserve Program Adminstrator (RPA) program’s 50th anniversary. CAPT L’Ecuyer was among the first class of RPAs appointed to administer the program and improve the training readiness of reservists. It was a delight to listen to her total-recall memory and learn something of the challenges these early pioneers faced. She also kept up with her shipmates who served with her, and was still showed her very sharp wit. She is a true treasure, and a great representative of our heritage.

  • Mcicirelli

    Being one of CAPT L’Ecuyer’s commissioned officers (in the mid-70′s), I truly enjoyed now (in 2012) hearing of her past – of which I knew very, very little.