Promoting the cause of servicewomen

December 09, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

IT WASN'T that long ago when a woman who chose to join the military had to be unmarried. If she had children, she essentially had to sign them over to a legal guardian. And thoughts of being "top gun" were pure fantasy. If she was a member of a racial minority, her opportunities were even more limited.

Such revelations tax the imaginations of young people in her classes at Anne Arundel Community College, says RitaVictoria Gomez, a teacher and historian who is also a major in the Air Force reserves.

"They are amazed at how bad things once were for women."

Gomez, who has been assigned to write the official history of women in the Air Force, says that women's history is her passion. While she teaches Western Civilization and Russian History in addition to Women in America, the last is her favorite course. The walls of her office are decorated with posters touting the accomplishments of notable women in and out of the military.

And her resume is chock full of publications and professional papers on women's issues. Besides the book in progress for the Air Force, there's the dissertation she's writing on minority women in the military in preparation for her Ph.D. from George Washington University.

Born in Manhattan and reared in a household where her Cuban-born mother and other relatives spoke Spanish, she grew up bilingual. After earning a bachelor's degree in history from Pace University in New York City, Gomez went to the University of California for her master's in ethnic history. Her early jobs were in teaching history, and for a time she served as consultant to San Francisco's Board of Education on integrating ethnic history into its curriculum.

Gomez had little interest in the military until 1974, when her then-husband, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, was transferred to Panama. She says she could have stayed home in California or gone with him as a military dependent, but she chose instead to join the service and go with her husband as an Air Force colleague.

With her knowledge of ethnic cultures, she was immediately assigned to the Social Actions Program to teach military personnel a required class on interpersonal relations. It was not long after the country had gone to an all-volunteer military, and the services were interested in promoting an understanding of cultural and racial differences within their ranks, she says.

When the Air Force offered her a chance to combine her interest in historical research with her interest in women's history, she jumped at the chance and in 1982 moved to work in the Office of Air Force History at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. It was there that she began writing the official history of women in the Air Force, a project she continued even after moving into the reserves in 1986.

"What interests me most," she says, is "the fact that women have always served the military, even as volunteers. Some joined as combatants. Others were support people -- like nurses, foragers and laundresses. Some even fought disguised as men."

"While not pursued for combat, women have nevertheless been in combat since the Revolutionary War," she says. While nurses in World War II and Vietnam, for example, were not in assigned combat positions, it didn't exclude them from enemy attack.

"We lost women off the beaches of Anzio [in 1944], and we had women POWs in World War II. They were primarily nurses, although we had a few non-nurses shot down over Germany."

Her Air Force history begins with World War II, because that marked the first large participation of women outside of nursing. [About 350,000 women reportedly served in the armed services throughout the war.]

Still, she says, probably the most significant period for women in the military was the post-Vietnam era, "because that's when all the military advances started to come about. In the '70s we started seeing all the academies opening up to women. And the pilot training for women [which was deactivated at the end of World War II] opened up again."

It was also a time when more women joined the services, she says, because it was acceptable for new recruits to be married and have children. And as the all-volunteer military came into being, more career fields opened up to entice women to sign up.

In addition, women could look forward to promotions. Until the mid-'70s, says Gomez, "only one woman per service was allowed to be a colonel. And there were no women generals." Today, with those barriers down, the highest rank a woman has attained is two-star general.

Recently, Operation Desert Storm has inspired renewed interest military service, and the focus of change in the '90s, says Gomez, has turned to what is virtually the only area yet to be integrated by women -- combat.

Gomez attended hearings last summer before the Senate, which eventually voted to overturn a 43-year-old law barring women from piloting combat missions, a law some contend was broken by female pilots flying in enemy territory during the Persian Gulf effort.

Congressionally approved legislation now before President Bush doesn't require the military to put women in combat, but it does clearly loosen the barriers to female Air Force, Navy and Marine fliers, says Gomez.

"I think many of the women on active duty today want to see the change come about," she says. "You see, combat exclusion closes down a lot of career fields, a lot of schools. And if women could get that, then technically there would be no barrier to their promotion."

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