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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 1, 2023

The Long Blue Line: 50 Years of Women’s Service in the regular Coast Guard!

By MKCS Tina M. Claflin, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.), MSLIS, Simmons University

The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE ( 

Today, it seems surprising that women have served in the regular Coast Guard for only 50 years. The recent 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act might lead many to believe that Coast Guard women were included in this 1948 legislation. However, the Coast Guard did not integrate women at that time. Although the service is legally a branch of the armed services, its unique position outside the Department of Defense means it is often left out of policies and legislation that apply to other military branches. The 1948 legislation shifted the nation’s stance and permitted women to serve in the regular armed services following World War II. Yet, the absence of the term Coast Guard in this law, and the delay in integrating women into its regular ranks, is significant for women’s history. Instead of immediate integration, the Coast Guard persisted with a separate Women’s Reserve. 

This omission and delay underscores questions about the true integration and equality of women’s service in the United States Coast Guard. We must consider the often-overlooked contributions of women’s service and the pressing need to recognize and honor the legacy of all women who have contributed to our service before, during, and after these significant legislative milestones. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of women serving in the regular Coast Guard, we must also remember the service of women who paved the way leading up to this integration. Only by embracing a deeper understanding of our past can we truly appreciate the value, resilience, and dedication of all women who have collectively shaped our future. 

Women’s Armed Services Integration Act

On June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (WASIA) into law. Public Law 625 enabled women to serve in all four military branches under the Department of Defense. The law states the following: 

To establish the Women’s Army Corps in the Regular Army, to authorize the enlistment and appointment of women in the Regular Air Force, Regular Navy and Marine Corps, and in the Reserve components of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, and for other purposes. 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that this Act may be cited as the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. 

The WASIA was undoubtedly a landmark legislation, and its commemoration should be celebrated as a tribute to the incredible women who came before us, shaping the path for future generations to serve in the military. It is an official acknowledgment of women’s service as essential to the war effort during World War II. However, there is no mention of the United States Coast Guard in the WASIA. Military laws and appropriations pass through Congress but often call out only the armed services of the Department of Defense (DoD). The Coast Guard is undeniability a military service and branch of the United States Armed Forces as stated by Public Law 239 on Jan. 28, 1915, which merged the United States Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service. However, over the years the Coast Guard, combined with its predecessor services, was repeatedly realigned across different departments in response to the evolving needs and current missions demanded of it during our nation’s history. Because of this, DoD legislation is often left for interpretation by the Coast Guard Commandant and the Secretary of whichever administration the Coast Guard falls under at the time.  

It would seem logical that the Coast Guard followed suit on such important legislation and thus allowed women to transition from the separate Coast Guard Women’s Reserve into its regular service in 1948. However, women were not allowed into the regular service until 1973. After all, Congress did not explicitly name the Coast Guard in its legislation permitting women to serve in this regard, so the Coast Guard — perhaps focused on other pressing matters at the time — flew under the radar. Additionally, after World War II, the service was drawing down its personnel numbers to peacetime levels and returning from the Department of the Navy to the Treasury Department. Closing out the books on World War II, the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve (a.k.a. SPARs) was deactivated on July 25, 1947. 

Reestablishing the Women’s Reserve 

Specific authorization to reestablish the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve came through an act signed into law on Aug. 4, 1949. Effective Nov. 1, 1949, women were officially allowed back into Coast Guard service as a separate reserve force — still not part of the regular Coast Guard. The female reserve force was initially re-opened to all eligible veteran SPAR officers in January 1950, while formerly enlisted SPARs were allowed back in April 1950. Notably, these women were not directly recruited as civilians; they were female reservists already serving as SPARs. They contributed to the Coast Guard’s missions in clerical and support functions and in a wide range of duties, just as they had during World War II. 

With the Korean War coming into play, women were once again found to be a valuable force multiplier. In 1951, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) was specifically established to “advise on the recruitment of women into the U.S. Military.” This was a Department of Defense initiative focusing on the four services under the DoD. A New York Times article titled “80,000 Women Set as Need in Services” indicated that some officials were even considering the implementation of a draft among women. Recruiting goals were set for women in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Without a separate oversight committee such as DACOWITS, the Coast Guard women continued to serve quietly under the radar without public recognition as equals within the regular Coast Guard. Further illustrating this quiet service, on Sept. 11, 1952, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp “honoring women serving in the U.S. armed forces.” The stamp featured women serving in the military branches under the Department of Defense — again ignoring the Coast Guard altogether. 

Not until 1965 could civilian women directly enter the USCG Women’s Reserve and enlist as storekeepers or yeomen. Enabling civilian women to join was likely driven by the escalation of the U.S. military operations in Vietnam. The drafting of men was in full force, but the military was not recruiting enough volunteers to serve. In addition to being tasked with surveillance and patrols on the inland and coastal waters of the Republic of Vietnam, the Coast Guard was heavily engaged with Cuban migrant interdiction. Cuban migration was a major policy concern in 1965 due to the Camarioca Boatlift. This historic event brought about the first large-scale exodus of Cubans attempting to immigrate to the U.S. Alongside its expanding list of roles and missions, the Coast Guard was modernizing, and women were once again asked to augment its personnel numbers. Fortunately for the Coast Guard, many women eagerly volunteered without official recognition or equality with their male counterparts in the regular ranks. 

The Vietnam War and the End of the Draft 

Military services experienced varying levels of enlistment reflecting contemporary economic and social movements. The end of the draft meant that the Armed Forces would once again become all-volunteer services. While the Coast Guard has enjoyed success in recruiting efforts due to its humanitarian missions, it still struggled to retain members and recruit more volunteers. There was a downturn in military reserve strength due to the end of the draft and the subsequent struggle to recruit civilians who had never previously enlisted. However, there was much success in recruiting volunteer veterans and women in petty officer grades, helping to reverse this trend. Recruiting efforts and service strength needed to adapt to the newly all-volunteer armed forces. This involved the development of a comprehensive Coast Guard recruitment advertising campaign themed “Help others/Help yourself: Join the lifesavers.” 

Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment 

In March of 1972, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to “authorize the appointment of women to any military service academy.” Although this bill was not passed, it brought the topic of equal rights in the military to the forefront of public policy and put the military on notice. In the leadup to official legislation allowing women to enter the service academies, Commandant Adm. Chester Bender, in keeping with the Coast Guard’s motto Semper Paratus (Always Ready), established an official board “to determine the need for permanent women officers in the regular Coast Guard.” In its May 1972 report, the board concluded the following: 

  1. No need for regular women officers in specific billets currently exists in the Coast Guard except in cases where a male applicant with adequate qualifications is not available. This requirement in itself does not justify the initiation of a program at this time. In fact, a program of such small size is not desirable; 
  2. Nevertheless, considering all factors, it is in the overall best interest of the Coast Guard to begin a controlled women officer program with provisions for integration into the regular Coast Guard included; 
  3. Planning and execution of a women officer program in the Coast Guard is overdue. 

Later in 1972, the Coast Guard offered a basic indoctrination class to train enlisted women in yeoman, storekeeper, radioman, and hospital corpsman ratings. This was the first basic military training class offered to women at a Coast Guard installation in over 25 years. About 400 SPARs were recruited as provisional petty officers in 1973, and, on Nov. 1, 1973, Congress authorized women to serve on four-year active-duty tours. 

Officer Candidate School reopened to Women 

In February 1973, Officer Candidate School (OCS) was reopened to women for the first time since 1945. The first female officer candidates were admitted into class 2-73 alongside their male counterparts. The women in class 2-73 included Lynn W. Smith, Sue E. Jennings, Bonnijill McGhee, Sheila E. Denison, and Margaret R. Riley. During their two-week training cruise aboard Coast Guard Cutter Unimak, these women were credited with being the first to serve aboard a sea-going vessel. Meantime, other events outside of the Coast Guard leveled the playing field for women’s service, including the Supreme Court ruling that military benefits could not differ on account of gender. 

During Adm. Bender’s tenure, the Coast Guard Reserve was taking on more roles. Public Law 92-479 amended Title 14 of the U.S. Code to authorize involuntary active duty for Coast Guard reservists for the emergency augmentation of regular forces. This established the authority for emergency call-up of Coast Guard reservists during natural or man-made crises. Of course, there was no shortage of disasters for the Coast Guard to respond to, including floods, plane crashes, shipboard disasters at sea, and hurricanes. More specifically, Hurricane Agnes was the “costliest hurricane to hit the United States at the time,” wreaking havoc on much of the East Coast. In the spring of 1973, Public Law 92-479 was also put to use to address the catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River Basin requiring two successive call-ups of 134 Coast Guard reservists to augment regular Coast Guard personnel. Coast Guard reservists proved to be a valuable force multiplier, and adding women to this force would only boost the Coast Guard Reserve’s capabilities and readiness. 

A perfect storm developed, giving women opportunities to exercise their equal rights. Congressional legislation ended the separate Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, meaning women could now integrate into the regular Coast Guard on reserve and active duty. Public Law 93-174, passed on Dec. 5, 1973, provided “for the enlistment and commissioning of women in the Coast Guard Reserve, and for other purposes.” Supporting equal rights for women and minorities was highlighted in Adm. Bender’s biographical list of career accomplishments. However, he later claimed in an oral history interview no recollection of initiating the measure permitting women to serve as regulars in the Coast Guard, stating it was “possibly the Office of Reserve.” However, he did not resist the bill. “I thought it was a good idea. I did not anticipate that we would have vast numbers of women in the regular service, and we don’t have, but nor did I initiate the action.” 

Women enter the Regular Coast Guard 

This shift led women in the SPARs to transfer to the regular Coast Guard, thus eliminating the term SPARs. The first women to earn the designation of enlistment in the regular Coast Guard were Yeoman First Class Wanda M. Parr, Yeoman Second Class Margaret A. Blackman, and Chief Warrant Officer Alice Jefferson. Yeoman Parr had previously served for 12 years as part of the SPARs. Yeoman Blackman had 16 years of prior service dating back to 1944 when she entered the service as a hospital corpsman. She and Yeoman Parr served at Yorktown, Virginia, when they were sworn-in to the regular Coast Guard. Commandant Adm. Chester Bender himself swore in Chief Warrant Officer Jefferson at a ceremony held at Coast Guard Headquarters. When CWO4 Jefferson retired in 1984, she had accumulated 24 years of total service. She had served in the Coast Guard as a SPAR from 1943 to 1945 before rejoining in 1963. All three women took the oath of enlistment and were sworn into regular service on December 7, 1973. 

Subsequently, for the first time in the Coast Guard’s then 184-year history, women reported for basic training in Cape May, New Jersey. Company Sierra 89 included 33 women, 30 of whom graduated after ten weeks of training in seamanship, firefighting, first aid, and driver safety. While this company was separated by gender, subsequent companies would be integrated to form co-ed training units. After ten weeks of training, these women went on to serve alongside their male counterparts in most operations and specialties. 

While we pause to honor and celebrate 50 years of women’s service in the regular Coast Guard, our reflection should not be one of merely commemoration but also of commitment to equality moving forward. The milestones marked by legislation and policy changes are undeniably significant, but true equality is not found in the ink of signed bills or policy development. It must continually thrive in every service member's heart, mind, and actions. As we look to the future, let us measure our progress by the commitment to equality and respect for one another and not just in milestone commemorations. The journey toward true equality is continuous, plotted by the course of those who came before us, where every story is a drop in the vast ocean over time.