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  • The History of Women in the U.S. Coast Guard
  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez

The History of Women in the U.S. Coast Guard

“How many females are in the Coast Guard?” That question usually leads to the discovery that few know very little about the Coast Guard, much less about the gender composition of its ranks. But the question remains, how many females are in the Coast Guard which encouraged us to explore women in the Coast Guard.

Women have made considerable strides in the U.S. military in the past few decades gaining access to once male-only occupational specialties, but more than 200 years ago, women serving in what would eventually become the U.S. Coast Guard blazed a trail into American history that few know about. I doubt back then anyone was asking how many females are in the Coast Guard?

In the English colonies, many women worked with their husbands and fathers to keep lighthouses operating for mariners. Many of these women worked the lighthouses themselves when their husbands left for the Revolutionary War and if they served as militia.

During the 1830s, according to the U.S. Coast Guard history office, women were first officially assigned as keepers in the Lighthouse Service (a predecessor of the Coast Guard). Civilian women continued as lighthouse keepers until 1948 when Fannie Mae Salter, keeper of the Turkey Point Lighthouse in upper Chesapeake Bay retired from active service. This ended nearly 150 years during which women were employed as keepers of United States’ lighthouses.

In 1918, the U.S. Navy assigned twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker of the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve to the Coast Guard. They became the first uniformed women to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.

During World War II, the Women’s Reserve of the U. S. Coast Guard Reserve (officially nicknamed the “SPARs”) was first established in 1942. If anyone asked “how many females are in the Coast Guard” they would likely be told that there were more than 900 female officers and 11,868 enlisted women serving in the SPARs during World War II. The program was dissolved in 1947.

The Women’s Armed Services Act of 1948 integrated women into the regular Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. However, the legislation did not mention the Coast Guard likely because the service fell under the Department of the Treasury. Nonetheless, the Coast Guard made its way and by 1956 there were nine enlisted women and 12 female officers in the Coast Guard.

The 1970s saw tremendous broadening of opportunities for women in the Coast Guard. It was almost as if someone asked how many females are in the Coast Guard? And then the Coast Guard started taking steps to open opportunities to women.  The first women’s Reserve Enlisted Basic Indoctrination classes were established in 1972 and four ratings were made available: yeoman, storekeeper, radioman, and hospital corpsman.

In 1973, congressional legislation ended the Women’s Reserve and women were officially integrated into the active-duty Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Reserve. The ratings offered were limited to yeoman, storekeeper, hospital corpsman, photo-journalist, dental technician, and musician. Also, in 1973, the first non-SPARs women since 1945 were admitted to officer candidate school and Chief Warrant Officer Alice T. Jefferson became the first woman commissioned officer to be sworn into the regular U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1973, officer candidate school graduate Vivien Crea as a lieutenant commander became the first Coastie, and the first woman from any uniformed military service, to serve as the presidential military aide, carrying the nuclear “football” for President Ronald Reagan for three years. In 2000, Crea became the first active-duty Coastie female to achieve flag rank and second after Coast Guard reservist flag Mary O’Donnell. In 2006, Crea became the 25th vice-commandant of the Coast Guard and she was the first woman to hold the second highest position in the Coast Guard or in any military service and, while serving as acting commandant, she was the first woman in U.S. history to oversee a uniformed military service.

In early 1974, the first group of women enlisted as “regulars’ reported to recruit company Sierra 89 which was made up of 33 women in an all-female recruit company. Thirty of these women graduated. After Sierra 89, recruit companies were mixed-gender. Also in that year, Karen F. Rovinsky became the first woman assigned to a patrol boat and Eleanor L’Ecuyer became the first woman on active duty promoted to captain (O-6) since World War II.

In 1975, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy announced that women would no longer be barred from applying to the academy. In February 1976, the Coast Guard Academy announced the appointments of female cadets to enter with the Class of 1980. The Coast Guard Academy becomes the first of the largest federal service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard) to offer academy appointments to women. Thirteen women would eventually graduate from the academy in 1980. Later that year, Debra Chambers Buchanan and Debra Lee Wilson became the first female coxswains in the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard aviation saw a first in 1977 when Janna Lambine became the first woman designated as a Coast Guard aviator. In August 1978, the Coast Guard announced that all personnel restrictions based solely on sex would be lifted. Thereafter all officer career fields and enlisted ratings were open to women.

Beverly Kelley became the first female commanding officer afloat in U.S. history when she took command of the Cutter Cape Newagen in 1977.

Lt. Colleen Cain became the first woman killed in the line of duty in 1982 when the HH-52 she was co-piloting crashed during a search and rescue mission. In 1981, she had become the first female to qualify on that helicopter and the third female Coast Guard aviator ever

How many females are in the Coast Guard in 1983? There were 129 women officers in the Coast Guard, 35 were serving aboard seagoing vessels and five were aircraft pilots. Female enlisted strength in the same year rose to 1,747, including 85 enlisted women at sea.

In 1998, there was only one female Coast Guard flag officer. By 2013, there were four and today there are seven serving up to the three-star rank.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Lt. Holly Harrison became the first Coast Guard woman to command a cutter in a combat zone. 

In 2011, Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz assumed command of the U. S. Coast Guard Academy and became the first woman superintendent. She was also the first woman to command any U.S. service academy. Stosz also happens to be the first female graduate of the academy to reach the flag rank.

How many females are in the Coast Guard? Today nearly 6,500 women serve out of a total number of 42,000 active duty service members, or approximately 15 percent of the Coast Guard’s active duty personnel.

  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez