Timeline: Women in the Air Force


April 5, 1938

  • Eleanor Roosevelt writes in her daily newspaper column: “I think there is a great future in aviation for women.”

September 1939

  • Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran writes to Eleanor Roosevelt to propose a women’s flying division in the Army Air Forces (AAF), a predecessor to the Air Force. However, Cochran will have to wait until 1942 to begin training female pilots.


  • May 14, 1942: Congress signs a bill that creates the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), but it does not grant members military status. The women of WAAC assigned to the AAF are referred to as the Air WAAC and are considered the first female Airmen.
  • Sept. 15, 1942: Cochran establishes the Women’s Flying Training Detachment.

World War II: December 7, 1942 – September 2, 1945

  • Over the course of World War II, a total of 29,323 women serve in the AAF.
  • Capt Lillian Keil, a flight nurse, flies 250 evacuation flights, taking part in the Battle of the Bulge.
  • July 3, 1943: WAAC becomes the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). This change provides WAC members with new benefits and protections.
  • August 1943: Jackie Cochran leads the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), which trains women to fly and ferry airplanes for the U.S. Army Air Forces (another Air Force predecessor) during a war-time flight shortage.
  • Dec. 20, 1944: WASP is disbanded with no military benefits due to political pressures and the increasing availability of male pilots.
  • 1945: At its peak, Air WAC boasts over 32,000 women.
  • By the end of World War II, women make up about 2 percent of the U.S. military, mostly performing clerical roles.


  • Col Geraldine Pratt May becomes the first female Colonel in the Air Force when she is promoted to the rank as the first director of the newly created Women in the Air Force (WAF) program.
  • The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act authorizes women to serve permanently in all U.S. military branches but stipulates women can only make up 2 percent of the military.
  • Executive Order 9981 mandates equal treatment and opportunity in the military, but female service members are still often thought of as auxiliary.
  • SSgt Esther McGowin Blake enlists in the Air Force during the first minute she can, technically becoming the first woman in the Air Force.2

Korean War: June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953

  • Capt Keil, now one of the most decorated women in Air Force history, flies 175 evacuation flights, inspiring the 1953 Hollywood movie Flight Nurse.
  • Capt Mary Spivak, another flight nurse, assists in South Korea during Operation Kiddy Car.

May 18, 1953

  • Col Jackie Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier.2


  • CMSAF Grace Peterson becomes the first female with this rank in the Air Force.

November 8, 1967

  • Legislation equalizes promotion and retirement and allows more than 2 percent of active duty forces to be women.

1971 – 1973

  • Before 1971, women were automatically honorably discharged if pregnant. That changes when expecting mother Capt Susan R. Struck, represented by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (then of the American Civil Liberties Union), appeals her involuntary discharge to the Supreme Court.
  • Jeanne M. Holm is promoted to Brigadier General in 1971 and then to Major General in 1973; she is the first woman to be appointed to these ranks in the Air Force.

1975 – 1976

  • After the Vietnam-era draft ends, the Air Force launches a test program to begin training female pilots.
  • Capt Jane L. Holley graduates from the Air Force Test Pilot School as its first female engineer.
  • 1st Lt Regina Aune assists on the first flight of Operation Babylift.1
  • Department of Defense policy allows women with children to remain in the military.
  • WAF ends as the Vietnam conflict draws to a close; women are accepted into the Air Force on the same basis as men.
  • Legislation allows women in the service academies.

June 1978

  • Women begin to take shifts in the missile launch control center, working as combat crew commanders and missile technicians.


  • Air Force Academy graduates first female officers.

May 1983

  • An 18th Military Airlift Squadron crew lifts off from McGuire Air Force Base, NJ, to fly the first all-female Air Force transatlantic flight in a C-141B Starlifter.


  • Brig Gen Marcelite Harris is the first African American female general officer in the Air Force.1
  • The U.S. Senate votes to allow military women to fly aircraft in combat situations.


  • Maj Susan Helms becomes the first U.S. military woman in space.1
  • 1st Lt Jeannie Leavitt becomes the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.1
  • The Combat Exclusion Policy is lifted from most aviation positions, allowing women to serve as fighter and bomber pilots.
  • Lt Col Patricia Fornes is the first female to lead an intercontinental ballistic missile unit.1
  • Dr. Sheila Widnall is named Secretary of the Air Force, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. military service branch.


  • Col Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.
  • 1st Lt Kelly Flinn begins B-52 pilot training.

May 5, 1996

  • Col Betty L. Mullis becomes the first woman to command an Air Force flying wing. Four years later, she will become the first female Air Force Brigadier General.


  • Lt Gen Susan Helms is the first woman to inhabit the International Space Station.2
  • Sept. 11, 2001: 1st Lt Heather Penney is part of a suicide mission to intercept Flight 93 after it is hijacked by terrorists, but civilian passengers crash the plane before she reaches it.1


  • A1C Vanessa Dobos becomes the first female aerial gunner in the Air Force.

November 2005

  • Capt Nichole Malachowski is the first female pilot in the Thunderbirds. She retired as a Colonel.


  • Col Jeannie Leavitt becomes the nation’s first female fighter wing commander.1

June 5, 2012

  • Gen Janet C. Wolfenbarger becomes the Air Force’s first female four-star general.

January 24, 2013

  • The Combat Exclusion Policy is terminated, making women eligible to serve in frontline combat and complete combat operations.

October 16, 2014

  • Gen Lori J. Robinson becomes a four-star general. She is the first female officer in the U.S. military to command a major Unified Combatant Command.


  • Col Sebrina Pabon is the first woman to assume command of the Air Force Test Pilot School on Edwards Air Force Base, CA.
  • Capt Emily Thompson becomes the first female fighter pilot to fly an F-35A stealth plane.
  • CMSAF JoAnne Bass becomes the first woman to serve at this rank in the Air Force.


AMC has had two female four-star generals take command in recent years:
Gen Maryanne Mill, Commander, Air Mobility Command, from 2018 to 2020
Gen Jacqueline Van Ovost, Commander, Air Mobility Command, From 2020 to 2021

To watch a virtual tour of the “Women in the Air Force” Gallery Tour at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4aQThYneJE.

1 Denotes rank at the time of her achievement.
2 Denotes highest rank obtained.