Women in the Coast Guard – Standing the watch in heels since 1915

9th Coast Guard District NewsStory by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Laughlin

What happens when you take a Coast Guard asset or office and fill it full of women? No, this is not a joke. Give up? The answer is… the same job would get done as if it were all male.

Regardless of arguments about gender equality, or physical ability, women in the Coast Guard have shown the willingness to fight for the ability to protect our country and over the years, the Coast Guard realized that the fairer sex works just as hard and can do the same job as a man.

Women in the Coast Guard fill many shoes; airmen, seamen, firemen, daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, friends, commanding officers, and everything in between. They work in offices, cutters, small boats, air crafts, mechanic shops and boat docks. They come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Yet with all these differences they have three things in common; honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Eldredge with her father

Petty Officer 1st Class Tricia Eldredge poses for a photo with her father Pinetop/Lakeside, Ariz., Chief of Police Sherwood “Woody” Eldredge at a Walmart in Show Low, Ariz., Dec. 15, 2010. The Eldredges were participating in Shop with a Cop, an event where underprivileged children are given gift cards to buy Christmas presents for their families alongside a policeman. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class Tricia Eldredge

Carrying on an Old Family Tradition

Women have protected American mariners and coasts longer than there has been a Coast Guard. One woman, Hannah Thomas, protected America’s waterways before the United States was a country. Thomas took over her husband’s job as keeper of the Gurnet Point Light, near Plymouth, Mass., when he joined the Army to fight in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Civilian women continued to serve as lighthouse keepers until 1947.

“Both my parents are in public service and raised me to understand what an honor it is to serve my fellow Americans, so I enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2004 to continue the tradition,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tricia Eldredge, a current-day member of the 9th Coast Guard District C4IT Branch. Her father also wears a uniform as a chief at the Pinetop-Lakeside, Ariz., Police Department.

“My father has always been my hero and given me a perfect model of how to live my life and what kind of person I should be. I hope to be half the person he is when I grow up.”

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Early 20th Century American society accepted only three places for women in the work place: the office, the hospital and the school house, but still preferred women at home. As much as women were inspired by family traditions of service they were confronted with traditional beliefs limiting their role in society.

“If I can organize the spice cabinet at home, raise two kids with homework every night and make sure the dog goes to the vet, I don’t see why I would have any problems organizing a yeoman’s office full of like-minded Coast Guardsmen,” said Crystal Kinnaird, administrative assistant to the 9th Coast Guard District commander and a Coast Guard Reserve petty officer one weekend a month and two weeks a year, who was active duty for more than seven years.

Taking in the Slack

Kinnard with her sister

Seaman Crystal Kinnaird poses with her sister Danica Zanetti after her graduation at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., July 13, 2001. After graduation, Kinnaird continued to serve in active duty for more than seven years and now serves in the reserves. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Crystal Kinnaird

Nineteen-year-old twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker were the first Coast Guard women in uniform, they transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve in 1915, during World War I. Women were allow to serve in the Coast Guard Reserve but only as yeoman, spurring the term Yeomanettes. At the war’s end the Yeomanettes were let go by the Coast Guard and it would not be until 1942 that America realized the need for women in the service once again.

With 16 million American men going to fight overseas during World War II, the government realized early that women would play a major role in the war effort and in 1942, women were once again called into service. Navy Lt. Dorothy Stratton, former dean of women at Purdue University, Ind., agreed to transfer to the Coast Guard, as the director of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Instead of re-using the name Yeomanettes or government girls, Stratton chose to call the female reservists SPARs, an acronym for the Coast Guard’s motto: Semper Paratus- Always Ready.

“When I first joined the Coast Guard, things were different, we used typewriters for all correspondence,” said retired Coast Guard Capt. Sharon Richey, a graduate of the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in 1981.

“Overall, I felt the Coast Guard was accepting of women, but we were very much the minority. I was the only female in the class when I attended the Marine Safety Basic Indoctrination Course.”

Looking for a Few Good Women

SPARs had to be between the ages of 20 – 36, have at least two years of high school, and could not be married to or get married to a male member of the Coast Guard. Also, if a SPAR became pregnant she had to resign immediately.

Women who joined the SPARs faced many challenges at first, not only from the government but from American society too. In 1943, SPARs were confronted with rumors that the female recruiting effort was a front for the government to hire prostitutes for male soldiers and sailors.

The Coast Guard countered this rumor with photos and posters of wholesome, high-spirited, and impeccably groomed young women hard at work, filling in for the men sent overseas. The ideal SPAR was devoted to serving her country and not joining to search for a husband, a trend unchanged to the present day.

“I joined the Coast Guard to make my country safe, save lives and make a difference in the community, not to find a husband,” said Seaman Sierra Heald, a current-day crewman at Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor, in Cleveland.

women from Air Station Detroit

Female members of Coast Guard Air Station Detroit (left to right) Lt. Tasha Sadowicz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Erin Sawicz, Lt. Mary Martin and Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashlee Leppert, walk away from a MH-65C Dolphin helicopter at the air station, March 19, 2013. The members were recreating a famous photo of World War II female pilots. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Joseph Rozycki

During this time it was policy that all newly enlisted SPARs were given the rating of seaman second class since male leadership felt that women lack useful skills beyond typing and working a telephone. But then one woman demonstrated that she could shoot a gun and one woman showed that she could use a camera and one woman showed that she could drive a boat, and one woman proved that she could fix engines and eventually women established themselves as equals.

“I have some experience as a woman, having been one for more than 23 years, and never once has anyone told me that my duties as a patriot would differ from a man’s duties,” said Heald.

Crossing Racial Boundaries

In 1944 African-American women were admitted into the SPARs. The first five African-American SPARs were Olivia Hooker, D. Winifred Byrd, Julia Mosley, Yvonne Cumberbatch, and Aileen Cooke.

“As a young African-American woman reaching for success, I have always looked to my mother as a guide for direction in times of need,” said Seaman Nikura Wall, a current-day crewman at Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor, Ohio.

“She taught me to put my heart into everything that I do. Because of her lessons, and what the Coast Guard has taught me, I am able to work with a very diverse crew with respect for one another regardless of gender, color or religion.”

Goodbye SPARs, Hello Active Duty

Waters rides her motorcycle after taking command of the cutter

Lt. Molly Waters drives home on her motorcycle after assuming command of the Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay, home-ported in Cleveland, Aug. 11, 2011. Waters is the only female commanding officer of a cutter in the Great Lakes. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Lt. Molly Waters

After World War II, the SPARs were mostly inactive and recruiting for active duty women ceased.

In 1973, Congressional law ended the SPARs for good, but opened the hatch for women to join the Coast Guard and Reserve. Women and men began serving side by side and women were assigned every duty to which their rank entitled them.

“In the Coast Guard, at least for the past thirty-five years or so, the service has indiscriminately drawn on the best people, and those people have all been able to focus on developing their careers and taking care of their units, rather than having to waste time fighting policy from the highest level that prevents them from serving to their utmost, and I believe that this has placed the Coast Guard ahead of the game,” said Lt. Molly Waters, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay.

“By selecting the best people for the most critical missions for the longest period of time, we have become the standard of high performance and efficiency.”

Lady Bears

In 1973 women were admitted to the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and in 1976 the Coast Guard Academy opened its doors to women.“It was an honor to attend a military academy as a female, especially the Coast Guard Academy, since it was the first to admit women,” said Lt. j.g. Katharine Braynard, operations officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, a 240-foot icebreaker homeported in Cheboygan, Mich.

“I reported to the Academy in the summer of 2006, which was the 30th anniversary of the first female cadets, and I’m proud to carry on the traditions of the women that came before me and pass it along to those who will come after me.”

Richey graduation day

Ensign Sharon Richey poses for a picture as an officer newly commissioned in the U.S. Coast Guard after completing Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Va., Oct. 1981. Richey was one of only two females in the class of approximately 30 candidates. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of retired Coast Guard Capt. Sharon Richey

An Oscar-Winning Outfit

The uniform of the Coast Guardsman has changed many times to fit the needs of service and social norms. In 1975 Coast Guard Capt. Eleanor L’Ecuyer prompted the Coast Guard to enlist the help of Hollywood’s premier fashion designer, eight-time Academy Award winner Edith Head, to create a uniform for active duty woman. Though at the time, active duty women in the Coast Guard were only able to enter into clerical-based rates such as yeoman and storekeeper, the new uniform proved that they had staying power in the service.

“Every day I put on this uniform, I step into a leadership role to provide the younger female generation with proof that anything is possible,” said Walls.

Women in the Coast Guard Set Course

By the late 1970’s the women of the Coast Guard proved that women in service could hold their own and they set a course for the women who would follow.

“Being in the Coast Guard, I have the best job and have been exceedingly fortunate to receive outstanding training and mentorship from day one by so many individuals who have been generous with their time and wisdom, which has been critical to my success,” said Waters

“I only ever wanted to be a military operator and member of an effective team and that is how I have been integrated into all of the units aboard which I have served. The past ten years have been a satisfying and enriching career experience, and I’m in for life.”

In 1978, the Coast Guard Commandant announced that all personnel restrictions based solely on sex would be lifted. Thereafter all officer career fields and enlisted ratings were open to women.

“Being a woman, I have never been treated different since joining the Coast Guard,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Santos, a member at Coast Guard Sector New York.

All-woman watch on USCGC Mackinaw

Petty Officer 1st Class Erin Hunter (right), junior officer-of-the-deck on the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, assists underway officer-of-the-deck Ensign Katharine Braynard with monitoring the electronic charting system, Nov. 28, 2012. One day prior, Hunter and Braynard were part of an all-female watch executed on the Mackinaw during the ship’s transit to Chicago to offload 1,300 Christmas trees as part of this year’s Chicago’s Christmas Ship event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Robert Butler

“I think the Coast Guard is great since women have the same exact opportunities as the men.”

Women Take the Helm

Women began working on cutters in 1977. In 1990 Lt. Sandra Stosz took command of the Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay, a140-foot icebreaking tug homeported in Sault Ste Marie, Mich., becoming the first female commanding officer of a cutter in the Great Lakes.“I graduated from Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Va., in 1981 and there were two women in our class of approximately 30 candidates”, said Richey.

“There were very few women in the Coast Guard then, and, as I recall, no active duty female captains, and very few commanders or lieutenant commanders, women were just starting to be assigned to cutters and it was a significant change.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Care – As Long as the Job Gets Done

In 2011 the military made clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation has no place in its work force and ended the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Since the policy ended the Coast Guard along with the other armed forces has extended many benefits to same sex couples and are working toward extending more of them.

“It has been a long struggle to gain recognition of our relationship by the military and the struggle is not over, but we are glad of the progress that is happening,” said Santos, who has been with her wife for more than two years.

Lt. Greene shows off her baby bump

Lt. Jeannette Greene poses for a photo in the Coast Guard’s maternity uniform, at the 9th Coast Guard District Headquarters in Cleveland, March 11, 2013. Greene is expecting her first child in May. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Laughlin

Motherhood and the Uniform

Women in the military not only have to deal with problems at work but are faced with a number of challenging situations at home, whether illness, spousal relationships, parenting struggles, and even positive ones like expecting a newborn. Being a woman in the service does not mean that your duties differ from a mans. A job is a job and needs to be accomplished. Women have proven themselves capable to perform all of the Coast Guard’s mission in the most strenuous of circumstances.

“Though I am not a mother yet, it is not lost on me the sacrifices that the women who came before me had to make to create a Coast Guard in which I am supported though my pregnancy with no impact to my career or treatment,” said Lt. Jeannette Greene, a member of the Coast Guard Base Cleveland Civil Engineering Unit, who is pregnant with her first child.

“It is sad that having a child in the military once meant a woman’s career was over, now there are so many supportive measures in place to enable me to serve and have a family,” said Greene.

Turenchalk and Reynolds in the Coast Guard store they work in

Coast Guard wives Lynn Turenchalk and Tiffany Reynolds in the Coast Guard Exchange in Cleveland where they both work down the hall from their husbands, Mar. 15, 2013. Turenchalk has been married to a Coast Guardsman for more than 22 years and Reynolds has been married to her Coast Guardsman for more than 13 years. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Laughlin

Tending the Home Fires

Spouses of Coast Guardsmen are vital to completing the mission, too. Spouses perform essential duties, from moving families across country to new stations or keeping the light on at home during deployments.

“I wrote my husband a letter every day when he was in bootcamp. He won the award for having the most mail,” said Lynn Turenchalk, an active duty Coast Guard wife since 1990 and store manager of the Coast Guard Exchanges in the Cleveland A. J. Celebrezze Federal Building and Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor.

Every year women are making their mark on the Coast Guard starting with Maria Mestre de los Dolores, who served as the Keeper of the St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida from 1859 to 1862, to Eleanor L’Ecuyer, who in 1974 became the first woman on active duty promoted to captain since World War II, to Laura E. Freeman, who in 2012 became the first female material maintenance specialty warrant officer in the Coast Guard. They will continue to do so as long as there is a horizon to sail on.

Let those in America know that women in uniform protect their freedom, that a woman’s sacrifice is just as great as the man in uniform beside her, that her blood runs red, white and blue, her tears for the fallen taste just as salty and her aim is just as steadfast on those who wish to do America harm.

Cleveland Harbor women

Coast Guard seamen Brooke Sauers, Nikura Walls and Sierra Heald pose for a picture at Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor, Ohio, March 13, 2013. Sauers, Walls and Heald posed for the photo as part of a blog celebrating women in the Coast Guard for Women’s History Month U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Laughlin

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One Comment

  1. Jim Broz says:

    Great article. I do have an issue with one picture. It is the one with Lt. Molly Waters preparing to ‘ride home’ in dress white? I would expect an officer in the Coast Guard to wear safety gear while on a motorcycle.

    But then again, the picture was probably staged.