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USA's Women Coast Guard - the effort for recognition since 1915

by Lauren Laughlin/Sail-World Cruising on 24 Jun 2013
Women taking their place in the US Coast Guard .. .
As cruising sailors we depend heavily on the Coast Guard. What happens when you take a Coast Guard asset or office and fill it full of women? Give up? No, this is not a joke. The answer always was … the same job would get done as if it were all male (some would say, better). But this was a difficult learning curve for traditionalists in the USA.

Here Petty Officer third Class Lauren Laughlin, Coast Guard ninth District External Affairs Division, tells the story:


Regardless of gender equality, or physical ability, women in the Coast Guard have shown the willingness to fight for the ability to protect our country and over the years, the Coast Guard realized that the fairer sex works just as hard and can do the same job as men.

Women in the Coast Guard fill many shoes; airmen, seamen, firemen, daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, friends, commanding officers, and everything in between. They work in offices and mechanic shops, aboard cutters, small boats, and aircrafts, and on boat docks. They come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Yet with all these differences they have three things in common; honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Carrying on an old family tradition:
Women have protected American mariners and coasts longer than there has been a Coast Guard. One woman, Hannah Thomas, protected America’s waterways before the United States was a country. Thomas took over her husband’s job as keeper of the Gurnet Point Light, near Plymouth, Mass., when he joined the Army to fight in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Civilian women continued to serve as lighthouse keepers until 1947.

'Both my parents are in public service and raised me to understand what an honor it is to serve my fellow Americans, so I enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2004 to continue the tradition,' said Petty Officer first Class Tricia Eldredge, a current-day member of the Coast Guard ninth District C4IT Branch. Her father also wears a uniform as a chief at the Pinetop-Lakeside, Ariz., Police Department.

'My father has always been my hero and given me a perfect model of how to live my life and what kind of person I should be. I hope to be half the person he is when I grow up.'

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue:
Early 20th Century American society accepted only three places for women in the work place: the office, the hospital and the school house, but still preferred women at home. As much as women were inspired by family traditions of service they were confronted with traditional beliefs limiting their role in society.

'If I can organize the spice cabinet at home, raise two kids with homework every night and make sure the dog goes to the vet, I don’t see why I would have any problems organizing a yeoman’s office full of like-minded Coast Guardsmen,' said Crystal Kinnaird, administrative assistant to the Coast Guard ninth District commander and a Coast Guard Reserve petty officer one weekend a month and two weeks a year, who was active duty for more than seven years.

Taking in the slack:
Genevieve and Lucille Baker, nineteen-year-old twin sisters, were the first Coast Guard women in uniform, they transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve in 1915, during World War I. Women were allow to serve in the Coast Guard Reserve but only as yeoman, spurring the term 'yeomanettes.' At the war’s end, the 'yeomanettes' were let go by the Coast Guard, and it would not be until 1942 that America realized the need for women in the service once again.

With 16 million American men fighting overseas during World War II, the government realized women would play a major role in the war effort. In 1942, women were once again called into service. Navy Lt. Dorothy Stratton, former dean of women at Purdue University, agreed to transfer to the Coast Guard, as the director of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Instead of re-using the name 'yeomanettes' or government girls, Stratton chose to call the female reservists SPARs, an acronym for the Coast Guard’s motto: Semper Paratus, Always Ready.

'When I first joined the Coast Guard, things were different, we used typewriters for all correspondence,' said retired Coast Guard Capt. Sharon Richey, a graduate of the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in 1981.

'Overall, I felt the Coast Guard was accepting of women, but we were very much the minority. I was the only female in the class when I attended the Marine Safety Basic Indoctrination Course.'

Looking for a few good women:
SPARs (United States Coast Guard Women's Reserve) had to be between the ages of 20 – 36, have at least two years of high school, and could not be married to or get married to a male member of the Coast Guard. Also, if a SPAR became pregnant, she had to resign immediately.

Women who joined the SPARs faced many challenges at first, not only from the government but from American society too. In 1943, SPARs were confronted with rumors that the female recruiting effort was a front for the government to hire prostitutes for male soldiers and sailors.

The Coast Guard countered this rumor with photos and posters of wholesome, high-spirited, and impeccably groomed young women hard at work, filling in for the men sent overseas. The ideal SPAR was devoted to serving her country and not joining to search for a husband, a trend unchanged to the present day.

'I joined the Coast Guard to make my country safe, save lives and make a difference in the community, not to find a husband,' said Seaman Sierra Heald, a current-day crewman at Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor, in Cleveland.

During this time, it was policy that all newly enlisted SPARs were given the rating of seaman second class, since male leadership felt that women lack useful skills beyond typing and working a telephone.

But then one woman demonstrated that she could shoot a gun.

One woman showed that she could use a camera.

One woman showed that she could drive a boat.

One woman proved that she could fix engines.

So, eventually...

...after a very long time...

...women established themselves as equals in the Coast Guard.

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