2 women recall life as pilots in military

Stories 50 years apart tell of acceptance, rejection by male colleagues

Anne Arundel

March 27, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

When the 81-year-old Marion Stegeman Hodgson flew as a young woman in World War II, there was no such thing as a sexual harassment policy. In fact, she says, there was almost no harassment. Most men were pleasantly surprised to find women pilots helping with the war effort.

"Once in a while, you would meet a little twerp that would resent women pilots," said Hodgson, who said male instructors sometimes hit their female students with a stick during training. "But the men coming back from overseas, they just thought we were wonderful."

Contrast that atmosphere to the one former naval aviator Missy Cummings said she encountered while flying fighter jets in the 1990s.

Cummings, 36, wrote a book several years ago outlining what she said was ridicule and humiliation from her male colleagues. Cummings, now resigned from the Navy, thinks she understands the reason for the differences in the women's experiences.

"Back then, when Marion flew, women were still seen as support pilots, so I don't think the hostility was there," Cummings said. "What makes the difference is that in 2003 women are taking the job of the warrior. And that flies in the face of our culture."

Hodgson and Cummings offered different perspectives on women in military aviation during an event yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to commemorate National Women's History Month, which is observed in March every year.

BWI's Office of Fair Practices, which coordinated the event, chose the two pilots because they are like bookends in the history of women's military aviation.

But, staffers said, the chronology wasn't quite what they expected, with Hodgson reporting a smoother ride than her younger counterpart.

Cummings said she didn't bond with the women in her squadron, while Hodgson said she and her fellow pilots became as close as sisters.

"I'm sorry," Hodgson said to Cummings in front of an audience of about 100 people, "but it was a lot easier in my day."

A Memphis native, Cummings had dreamed of becoming an astronaut. She enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in part because her father spent his career in the Navy.

But 11 years after graduating, she resigned and is researching her doctorate instead of flying fighter jets. Her book, Hornet's Nest, describes what she said was mistreatment in the Navy.

Cummings kept her speech mostly positive yesterday, encouraging the young women in the audience to concentrate on their studies and stay away from serious boyfriends until age 25 - at least.

Unlike in Cummings' time, when the nation debated women's roles in combat, few knew that Hodgson and her fellow WASPs - Women Airforce Service Pilots - even existed. At times, when women wore their uniforms in town, police officers would arrest them for impersonating an officer and jail them until their commander explained the situation.

It was a serious time, the Texas resident recalled, and the women had no time for nonsense or parties. Only about a thousand of the women who trained with the military were selected to fly.

Most flew domestic support missions, ferrying planes and soldiers from factories to bases. Thirty-eight, including one of Hodgson's sorority sisters, died in crashes while in the line of duty.

Despite their importance, the WASPs weren't considered veterans until the late 1970s. Hodgson's own children didn't know her story until a few years ago, when she wrote Winning My Wings - a book told though letters to a severely wounded Marine, who later became her husband.

Still, she says, "We felt like the luckiest gals in the world. We were still given a chance."

Hodgson said she loves getting the recognition now - even if she had to wait until her twilight years to get it.

She didn't fly planes again after her WASP service. Instead, she focused on being a wife and mother, and writing for various women's magazines.

While Cummings said she's "jealous" of the women flying in Iraq, Hodgson said she has no desire to go - and doesn't approve of mothers leaving their children to serve their country.

"I think mothers belong in the home if their kids are small. I'm going to sound old-fashioned, but I have three wonderful children to prove I'm right," Hodgson said.

Several students from Patterson High School's junior ROTC program said the women's stories inspired them.

Bibi Kanda, a junior who moved here from the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, said hearing their stories increased her resolve to become a pilot.

"Not only men can do it - we can do it, too," Kanda said. "I feel like I can do it, too."

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