Fifty years ago this past July, Jeanne Holm was promoted to Brigadier General, the first woman in the Air Force to hold such a rank. The promotion itself was a milestone in Air Force history, but the story behind it is one that needs to be told more often.
Background on Holm
Holm grew up in Portland, OR and started a career as a silversmith, but she answered her nation’s call to duty by joining the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. In 1949, shortly after President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, allowing women to serve directly in the military, Holm transferred to the Air Force. She was stationed in Germany during the time of the Berlin Airlift and was awarded the Legion of Merit and Medal for Human Action for her role in the crisis. She held various leadership positions in training based environments but the career move that was a huge win for her and the Air Force was when, in 1965, she was named Director of the Women of the Air Force (WAF). The organization itself was abolished in 1976 when the separate career status of women in the Air Force went away (ironically largely due to her work). Holm served in that role for eight years in which numerous advancements for females were made, including by law allowing female cadets in ROTC programs, a sharp rise in AFSC’s for women to choose from, increasing the highest permanent officer rank that women can hold and more mobility and assignment options for junior enlisted females. She also was successful in modernizing the female Air Force uniform.
Quotes from Holm
Some priceless quotes from Holm found in a 1971 Airman Magazine:
- “Normalcy is a state in which the sex of an individual becomes a consideration only when it is truly relevant . . . dress, cultural customs and obvious biological differences.”
- “The inability of women in the Air Force to achieve a real state of ‘normalcy’ has been primarily the result of the small numbers involved, our cultural hangups with regard to the military as a ‘masculine’ profession and our tendency to treat them as something unique and delicate.”
- “The armed services are not immune to the currents of today’s society.”
Trailblazer Ahead of Her Time
She was a frequent guest speaker all across the country to anyone that would listen and was mentioned favorably in magazines such as Seventeen and Ladies Home Journal touting the female role in the Air Force, past, present and future. As a sign of the times, almost every article I read on her described her as “attractive”, “pretty”, or the “best looking general” in the Air Force. Despite the descriptions, Holm continued to destroy stereotypes of years past. She wrote several articles on women’s rights that were cited by academics everywhere. In 1973, Holm was promoted to major general and served as the Director of the Secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council up until her retirement in 1975. Post her uniformed service career, Holm served as an advisor to President Ford and authored several books, which advocated for the next steps to be taken by services in promoting women roles in the military. Her book Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (written in 1982, revised in 1994) should be required reading for all legal and personnel professionals in the Air Force as it paints a great picture of advancements on the subject through laws and regulations. While she doesn’t engage in debate about women in combat, she did contend that the statutory language prohibiting such should be removed in favor of more neutral wording and Holm was way ahead of her time, when she astutely pointed out fewer and fewer jobs that fell into the category of combat would require the strength and stamina (at the time traits predominately associated with men). Holm died in 2010, at the age of 88, and never stopped being an advocate for women in uniform, even in her later years.
An Impact That Stands the Test of Time
Looking back on her career, it is puzzling as to why she has not been more recognized for her accomplishments. She does have the honor of being inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame and has a section of Air University geared towards career advancement named for her (this happened in 2008), but there seems to be a general ignorance of her contributions amongst DoD personnel and the public in general. Why is that? It could be combination of several reasons. First, at the height of her career, Vietnam was in full force and was polarizing the nation. Women’s rights in the services was not something that made the headlines as far as military news (although there was some discussions on women being drafted). Women’s rights advocates themselves, were front and center in the late sixties and early seventies, but were portrayed with features on such people as Gloria Steinham and such groups as the National Organization of Women. It is arguable that Holm made advancements that were more constructive for women in her organization than those mentioned above using her abilities and methods as an advocate. Finally, any way you slice it, Holm was not a pilot and thus had limitations on career advancement. Male or female, if you look at those historically common names associated with the Air Force, almost all were pilots who were combat war heroes or rose to the highest ranks of the Air Force. While she is not the only one who may have been under recognized due to her career field, she may be the most worthy. Jeanne Holm should be a name everyone in the Air Force components of DoD knows, and her enduring impact should be recognized more than it is.