The Long Blue Line: A brief history of women’s service in the Coast Guard

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis, titled “The Bravest Woman in America,” for all the water rescues she accomplished while serving as keeper. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis, titled “The Bravest Woman in America,” for all the water rescues she accomplished while serving as keeper. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Over the course of its nearly 230-year history, women have played a major role in the United States Coast Guard and its predecessor services. Coast Guard women have helped shape the service and pioneered the role of their gender in the federal government and the nation as a whole.

Women began performing Coast Guard duties even before there was a Coast Guard. In 1776, lighthouse keeper John Thomas joined the American Army to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, his wife Hannah took over his responsibilities as keeper of Gurnet Point Light in Massachusetts. Later, in the Coast Guard predecessor agency of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, keepers’ wives served unofficially as assistant keepers, ensuring that the lights shone year-round even in their husband’s absence. By 1830, women received official assignments as lighthouse keepers, making them the first of their gender to serve in highly responsible supervisory positions. Their numbers included some of the first minority women in federal service; and service luminaries, such as Keeper Ida Lewis, titled “The Bravest Woman in America” for her numerous water rescues. Women continued to serve as lighthouse keepers until 1948, when the last one retired.

Genevieve and Lucille Baker volunteered to serve with the Coast Guard during World War I. They were the first women to don a Coast Guard uniform and served at Headquarters. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Genevieve and Lucille Baker volunteered to serve with the Coast Guard during World War I. They were the first women to don a Coast Guard uniform and served at Headquarters. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

During World War I, the U.S. Navy authorized the enlistment of women in the Naval Reserve as female yeomen, with the rating of “Yeoman (F).” The policy was extended to the Coast Guard and these “yeomanettes” served as uniformed clerical workers at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Nineteen-year-old twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve to become the first women to serve as uniformed military personnel in the Coast Guard. Before war’s end, several more yeomanettes would join them at Coast Guard Headquarters.

A group of SPARs pose for a photograph during World War II. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

A group of SPARs pose for a photograph during World War II. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

During World War II, the Coast Guard recruited women for the SPARs (Semper Paratus, Always Ready), a female corps similar to the Navy’s WAVES and the Army’s WACs. For the war effort, the Coast Guard estimated it would need 8,000 enlisted women and 400 female officers; however, 12,000 women, including minorities, volunteered and served during the conflict. After the war, all women’s military reserve branches were disbanded and the SPARs officially ceased to exist, although a few SPARs remained members of the Coast Guard Reserve. During the Korean Conflict, from 1950 to 1953, the Coast Guard did not mobilize former SPARs, but about 200 women volunteered for active duty anyway. Most left the service after the conflict ended and, by 1956, the Coast Guard counted only 12 female officers and nine enlisted women out of thousands of service personnel.

In the early 1970s, the Coast Guard emerged as a policy leader for women in the military. In 1973, congressional legislation allowed women to serve alongside men on active duty in both the regular Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserves. Under the leadership of Coast Guard Commandant Chester Bender, the service became the first military agency to open its Officer Candidate School (OCS) to women. Within the ranks of OCS Class 2-73 were the first five female officer candidates. These women trained on board the cutter Unimak, the first time in U.S. history that women trained aboard a U.S. military vessel beside their male counterparts. On June 8, the 29 member OCS Class 2-73 graduated from Yorktown Training Center, including all five female officers.

Under the 1973 legislation, the Coast Guard also began to integrate women into its enlisted ranks. On Nov. 1, 1973, enlistment of women was first authorized for four-year tours of active duty. On December 7, the first female enlistees were sworn-in to the regular Coast Guard and, on Jan. 15, 1974, the service’s first group of female “regulars” reported to Cape May Training Center. With 30 out of 33 female candidates graduating with this first all-female company, the experiment proved a success, so the Coast Guard began to institute mixed-gender basic training with the next recruit company. In early 1974, the Coast Guard opened the first enlisted ratings available to women, including yeoman, storekeeper, hospital corpsman, photojournalist, dental technician, and musician. By late February, the service opened more ratings, including radioman, fire control technician, telephone technician and boatswain’s mate.

While the integration of women into the service began in the last years of Bender’s term, the initiative gained headway in the four years under Commandant Owen Siler. In 1975, the service counted 420 enlisted women and 32 female officers among its active-duty personnel. That same year, Siler announced, “that women will join the Corps of Cadets at New London.” He pointed out that no legislative statutes barred admission of women to the Coast Guard Academy and that action by Congress was unnecessary. He also noted that his decision was in keeping with the strong commitment of the Department of Transportation to assure equal rights for women. It was the first time in U.S. history that a military academy would offer appointments to female applicants.

The deadline to apply to the Academy for the Class of 1976 was Dec. 15, 1975, and 700 women submitted admission applications out of 10,000 applicants. On June 28, 1976, the class of 1980 swabs reported to the Coast Guard Academy, including 38 women. It was the first time that a U.S. military service had appointed women to its academy. Of the original 38 female cadets in the entering class of 1980, 14 graduated. Three years later, the service counted 129 female officers, many of them Academy graduates, with 35 serving afloat and five serving as aviators.

Commandant Owen Siler with female pioneers Petty Officer 3rd Class Debra Wilson and Ens. Beverly Kelley awaiting a press conference. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Commandant Owen Siler with female pioneers Petty Officer 3rd Class Debra Wilson and Ens. Beverly Kelley awaiting a press conference. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw women break countless gender barriers in the enlisted and officer ranks. On Jan. 1, 1976, the service opened all of its aviation ratings to women. By 1977, the Coast Guard had decided to experiment with mixed-gender crews and, in June, it manned high-endurance cutters Morgenthau and Gallatin with crews that included 10 enlisted women and two female officers. Despite initial misgivings, the experiment proved a success. Ens. Beverly Kelley, a 1976 OCS graduate, served as one of the female officers. In April 1979, Lt. j.g. Beverly Kelley took command of the 95-foot Cutter Cape Newagen, becoming the first woman to command a U.S. military ship. Under her watch, the Cape Newagen received the Meritorious Unit Commendation.

Master Chief Petty Officer Diane Bucci, who broke numerous gender barriers for enlisted service women during her career. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Master Chief Petty Officer Diane Bucci, who broke numerous gender barriers for enlisted service women during her career. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

In August 1978, the incoming commandant, John Hayes, announced that “all personnel restrictions based solely on sex would be lifted,” thereby opening all ratings and officer career paths to women. By 1983, the number of enlisted women had also grown to a total of 1,747, including 85 deployed on cutters. Master Chief Petty Officer Diane Bucci advanced through the enlisted ranks during this transitional period. She joined the Coast Guard in 1975, not long after the service opened its enlisted ranks to women, and made history by breaking many of the Coast Guard’s early gender barriers. Bucci made history in 1988 when she became the first enlisted woman to command afloat as officer-in-charge of the Coast Guard tug Capstan.

Women began receiving assignments in Coast Guard aviation at the same time they got afloat assignments. In 1977, 1976 OCS graduate Janna Lambine became the first woman in the service designated a Coast Guard aviator. 1973 OCS graduate Vivien Crea was the second and went on to qualify in the C-130 Hercules turboprop, HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, and Gulfstream II jet. Lt. Colleen Cain, another 1976 OCS graduate, attended flight school and became the service’s third female aviator and first female HH-52 pilot. In January 1982, a helicopter co-piloted by Cain crashed while flying a rescue mission in Hawaii, making her the first woman killed in the line of duty.

The Coast Guard’s first female aviator Janna Lambine. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

The Coast Guard’s first female aviator Janna Lambine. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

In the early 1990s, new opportunities emerged for women in the Coast Guard. In 1990, the service’s “Women in the Coast Guard” study led to a systematic effort to support female recruiting and retention, including a new Women’s Advisory Council. During operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, three Port Security Units with female personnel were sent to the Persian Gulf. For the first time, female members received combat assignments, such as manning the .50 caliber heavy machine gun on board PSU Raider boats. In addition, more female officers received afloat commands, including Katherine Tiongson, the first minority female skipper, who in 1991, took command of Cutter Bainbridge Island. That same year, Marilyn Dykman received Coast Guard aviator designation to become the service’s first minority female aviator.

A Port Security Unit Raider boat during the First Gulf War with female reservist Sandy Mitten manning the aft .50 caliber machine gun. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

A Port Security Unit Raider boat during the First Gulf War with female reservist Sandy Mitten manning the aft .50 caliber machine gun. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

During the rest of the 1990s, women continued to receive advancement to male-dominated areas of the Coast Guard. Patrol boatcrews were integrated for the first time and female officers received commands of Coast Guard bases, including air stations and training centers. Pioneering officer Bev Kelley broke more gender barriers when she received command of cutters Northland in 1996 and Boutwell in 2000, making her the first woman to command medium endurance and high endurance cutters. At the same time, women began to receive greater recognition, including the first female recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Air Medal and Meritorious service Medal.

Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, who graduated from Officer Candidate School and broke numerous gender barriers for female officers to become vice commandant of the Coast Guard. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, who graduated from Officer Candidate School and broke numerous gender barriers for female officers to become vice commandant of the Coast Guard. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

The 21st century saw women reach the highest officer positions. OCS graduates led the way to flag positions, including Vivien Crea who, in 2000, became the first woman to achieve flag rank. Later, in 2006, Crea was promoted to vice commandant of the Coast Guard, becoming the first woman to hold the second highest position of any military service. And, while serving as acting commandant, she was the first woman in U.S. history to oversee a military service. Crea was followed by a 1976 OCS graduate, Jody Breckenridge, who in 2009, became vice admiral and the first woman to command the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area; and 1975 OCS graduate Sally Brice-O’Hara, who in 2010, became the Coast Guard’s second female vice commandant. Several Coast Guard Academy graduates have also achieved flag rank during this period, including Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, current deputy commandant for mission support. Stosz is the first female graduate to achieve flag rank and, as a superintendant of the Coast Guard Academy, she became the first woman to command a U.S. military academy.

Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, former superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy and current deputy commandant for mission support. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, former superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy and current deputy commandant for mission support. All photos from U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Since the 1970s, women in the Coast Guard have come a long way with female service members occupying nearly every active-duty role formerly reserved for men. However, women’s participation in the service still has a long way to go. Today, over 5,800 women serve out of nearly 40,000 active-duty service members, representing only 15 percent of the Coast Guard. While the percentage of active-duty women remains modest compared to total service figures, the proportion of women in the Coast Guard continues to grow.

Women have walked the long blue line since the very beginning of the service. They have helped shape the U.S. Coast Guard into a better institution for all men and women and they will play an even greater role in shaping the service in the 21st century.

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