A thumbnail history of.................


by Elizabeth A. Neely

Women have earned their place in the Coast Guard throughout it's history, serving with distinction. Whether under the auspices of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Life Saving Service or the Coast Guard of today. Women have contributed to and complimented the various missions of the service.

Marie Lee better known as "Black Marie" demonstrated her importance to the young service in 1791. Black Marie famous for her brawn and boxing skills, was hired by a shipping company to protect a cargo of "swivels." Those swivel guns were destined for placement on the Revenue Cutter Scammel. Black Marie proved her reputation fighting off six smugglers as they attempted to steal the precious cargo. Her skill enabled the cargo to be delivered and in turn, the Scammel to sail her maiden voyage.

Among the first women to prove their importance to the Lighthouse Service were Rebecca and Abigail Bates, whose father was the first lighthouse keeper for Scituate, Massachusetts. As the British warship Hogue entered Scituate Harbor on the morning of September 1, 1814, the sisters knew decisive action had to be taken to prevent attack upon the village. Hoping to convince the British that there was a contingent of guardsmen ready to defend the town, the sisters took up a fife and drum and began playing a military march. Their plan was successful. The Bates sisters have gone down in history as defenders of Scituate and members of the lighthouse "Army of Two."

Many other women proved their importance to the Lighthouse Service as keepers and assistant keepers without receiving official recognition. The positions were often inherited from a father or husband who was unable to continue to perform the duties. Throughout the years women proved their capabilities and were eventually appointed keepers. This became one of the few professions open to women during the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most famous keeper was Ida Lewis, keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island. She performed many daring rescues during her 32 year tenure. An 1869 edition of "Harper's Weekly" featured Lewis' picture on the cover. Ida Lewis Day was proclaimed. Her bravery was rewarded with numerous honors, including the Gold Life Saving Medal, the nation's highest award for valor in rescuing those in peril on the open sea. Editor's Note -- The Coast Guard has named a Coast Guard Cutter after Ida Lewis."

Another notable keeper was Harriet Colfax, the niece of Vice President Schuyler Colfax (under Grant.) She tended Michigan City Lighthouse for more than 40 years from 1861 to 1904. The wind-blown, icy waves on Lake Michigan made the daily walk to the outer beacon treacherous, especially in the dresses worn by the late 19th century women. Her deeds and devotion saved many lives.

The last woman keeper was Fannie M. Salter, keeper of Turkey Point Lighthouse in upper Chesapeake Bay. She retired January 31, 1948, after 23 years of service, thus bringing to a close a period of nearly 150 years during which women served as lighthouse keepers. As reported in the "Coast Guard Bulletin," these women performed acts of heroism and made personal sacrifices that the signals under their charge might not fail mariners.

Edith Morgan, daughter of the keeper of U.S. Life-Saving Station, Grand Point au Sable in Hamlin, Michigan, made her mark on the rolls of the Life Saving Service. While women were not employed as surfmen, they were often called upon to assist in rescues. Morgan was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal for assisting two rescues during which she manned the oars of a surfboat, cleared land, helped launch the boat, hauled survivors ashore, and tugged at a frozen rope for six hours in snow over a foot and a half deep.

As nations moved into the 20th Century, conflicts occurred which required military action. The Coast Guard responded, and women continued to contribute their services. During World War I, Genevieve and Lucille Baker, 19-year old twins from Brooklyn, New York enlisted in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve. Utilizing women's civilian skills reduced the need for further training. The bookkeeping experience the Baker twins possessed enabled them to become the Coast Guard's first "Yeomanettes." (From Commandants Bulletin, March 1987.)

During World War II when a Coast Guard Captain heard women were coming into the Coast Guard, he exploded with, "My God!!! Horses, Dogs, and now WOMEN in the Coast Guard!!!" His remarks probably reflected the feeling of men in the Coast Guard at that time.

In 1988, Lieutenant (jg) Colleen Johnson, USCG remarked, "The oldest service has the newest ideas about women."

Those changes in attitude did not come swiftly, nor did they evolve without controversy. Women have always been an unofficial part of the Coast Guard. Women lived in lighthouses and in lifesaving stations with husbands, fathers, or brothers, and many times during the history of those services, women have taken over their male companions duties for days, weeks, months, and even years, if the male was incapacitated for any reason, or was killed on the job. As individuals women have left their mark on the history of the Coast Guard and have been acknowledged to some extent, but always in relation to men and men's jobs.

The first time women, as a group, were invited to join the Coast Guard was during World War I. Women were recruited to join, as reserves, to fill vacancies in offices that were made when the men were transferred to combat situations. The women were given the title of "Yeomanettes" and were released as soon as the war ended.

During World War II, the Coast Guard again called upon women to serve in a reserve capacity as office workers. Some of the first volunteers were transfers from the Navy. The women of the forties refused to accept a situation that confined their efforts to desk work, and at wars end there were women Boatswain's Mates, and Coxwains, as well as the traditional office workers. A few women had even been sent to the Coast Guard Academy and were awarded reserve commissions. Not everyone welcomed the advent of women in the service. The "My God" remark was only one of many, and probably the least offensive. One female enlistee was forced to watch as her new boss (male) had his desk moved so his back was to her. He obviously felt that if he didn't see her, she wasn't there.

CWO Betty Splaine, USCG (Ret) explains what happened to SPAR's at wars end. "After the war, officers were allowed to

CWO Betty Splaine - 1971 Photo

keep their commissions. But by June 30, 1947, the Coast Guard let lapse the legislation allowing women into the Coast Guard. That was the reason the last two ladies were sent home. When the legislation lapsed, all officers holding commissions in a very inactive status were also given separation papers. There was never a choice to remain part of the Coast Guard." CWO Splaine decided that if she was forced to go, she'd do so fighting to stay. Betty says, "I guess I was unique. I was the first woman Warrant Officer and after I passed the exam and the interviews, and the Secretary of the Treasury had signed my Warrant, I was told that in order to be promoted, I would have to leave the service (and stay in the reserves.) They said there was no place for a woman Warrant. That was in December, 1958 and until June 23, 1959 I fought everyone and anyone who would listen to me. THEY didn't have to go home3 when promoted. I held out for what I thought was my right."

PA3 Elizabeth Neely, USCG writing in the Commandant's Bulletin (March 1987) states that "in 1973 landmark legislation allowed women to serve in the regular Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Academy was the first service Academy to open it's doors to women and in 1985 a woman achieved the highest honors of all graduates. Another first among Service Academies.

Lieutenant (jg) Colleen Johnson, USCG was a member of the fifth class to attend the Coast Guard Academy and she says the first two weeks were the hardest, just getting used to the routine. Colleen acquired the engineering degree she wanted when she joined and is happy with her decision.

The enlisted ranks opened to women` at the same time and females were sent to Cape May, New Jersey. The next eight weeks were an education for the instructors as well as the enlistees. The instructors had never trained women and tried to modify their language to fit the new situation; sometimes with hilarious results. One instructor, going to great lengths to make sure the female recruit understood what he wanted, but wouldn't take his remark, personally stated ... "I want you to understand and not take this personally ... SCUMBAG!!!"

If the language was modified to fit the new situation, training schedules were not. The one concession made for women when they were lined up for running, either on the track` or cross country.

The women were placed in front, and as no one could pass, and the women as a group ran slower, it made the run easier for men. Everyone had to cross the finish line. "Even if we were being towed by a man on each arm," says CPO Patricia Stolle with the objectivity obtained after 14 years in the Coast Guard. Patricia comments ... "I kinda liked Boot Camp. I was a farm kid and I got to sleep to 5 a.m. The Coast Guard wasn't ready for women. Out underclothes were bought in stores in town and we wore LEGGS panty hose for cryin' out loud."

It was Admiral John B. Hayes who was Commandant of the Coast Guard 1978 when the policy of not having restrictions on the types of jobs women could hold was initiated. It was a brave move to make.

In the Summer of 1988 when there was a suggestion made the Coast Guard should be sent to the Persian Gulf to assist Navy ships on station, Admiral Paul Yost, Commandant of the Coast Guard, said, "If it is an order to get women off vessels tomorrow, I would be unable to comply. But reasonable orders would be obeyed."

This article is from "We've Been There" by Esther Stormer 1992 and appeared in the August 1988 issue of the TROA Magazine.


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