Politics

A Salute to Women Veterans Trailblazing
a Path from the Military to Public Office

Knowing she had to come down smoothly with a single engine and 149 people aboard, Captain Tammie Jo Shults deftly guided her crippled aircraft while reassuring her passengers that the plane was descending, not going down. She warned that they would come down hard, but instead, “she didn’t slam it down. She brought the bird down very carefully.” Passenger Alfred Tumlinson admired the pilot’s cool (“She has nerves of steel”) and the emergency landing that saved the lives of almost all aboard the Southwest Airlines plane whose engine exploded in April. The single fatality was the woman who had been blown halfway out a window broken by shrapnel from the explosion. Once safely on the ground, Shults modestly thanked the air traffic controllers for their help and walked through the plane, talking to each passenger and shaking every hand, according to Tumlinson.

Shults knew what she wanted at an early age. “Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it,” she said. Living near Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, she was fascinated by the planes overhead and knew she “just had to fly.”

But it wasn’t easy. Patriarchy bucked her every step of the way. In 1979, Shults was a senior in high school and the only girl attending a lecture on aviation. The speaker, a retired colonel, asked her if she was lost. “I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying,” Shults wrote. “He allowed me to stay, but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”

Captain Tammie Jo Shults featured in Naval Aviation News in 1992. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Air Force, she wrote, “wasn’t interested” in her, but the Navy accepted her application for aviation officer candidate school. After graduating, Shults discovered the Navy’s acceptance was limited. She trained student aviators and taught electronic warfare, but was prohibited by law from flying in combat, despite having the same training as her male colleagues. The law changed a month after she left active duty. Despite the frustration, Shults “loved” her time in the military.  She learned how to overcome the challenges in a field dominated by men. After ten years of service in the Navy, Shults retired as a decorated lieutenant commander.

The opposition and the challenges that women like Shults face in the military refine their determination to succeed and hone their leadership skills and self-mastery. Their experience in breaking barriers and working together as a diverse group for a common goal makes them supremely fitted for subsequent careers in public office. Now, they are ready to break barriers in politics as they were in the military.

Amy McGrath knows how to break barriers. Like Shults, McGrath yearned to be a fighter pilot since she was a young girl. Knowing that becoming a pilot was an impossible dream for a woman, she set about trying to have the law changed. She sent a barrage of letters to her congressman and all the members of the Armed Services committees of both Houses.  They mostly ignored her. Her congressman, however, wrote back: “Women ought to be protected and not allowed to serve.” She persisted. She wrote letters to newspaper editors, trying to convince the public, in addition to the legislators, that women could fight alongside their male counterparts.

Amy McGrath (Courtesy of Amy McGrath for Congress)

McGrath was born twenty years later than Schults. Laws and attitudes were evolving, and the law allowing women in combat passed when she was ready to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. McGrath fulfilled her dream and became the first woman to fly a combat mission in a Marine F/A-18 fighter jet. She was a lieutenant colonel when she retired.

After three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, McGrath, now a mother of three children, decided to run for a seat in Congress. “A year ago if you were to tell me I was going to be running for Congress, I would have said, ‘You’re full of it,’” said McGrath. “But what started it for me was the 2016 election. I felt like we needed better leaders for the country.”

Despite polling 47 points behind her popular opponent five months ago in a county that voted for POTUS with a double-digit margin, McGrath pulled ahead. Even without the backing of the national party for most of the campaign, she won the race. Now the Democratic party is very interested in her.

And yet few women veterans are in office where they form an even smaller subset of women officeholders. In Congress, where women make up 20 percent, there are four women veterans. The Senate has 23 women and two of them are veterans. In the U.S. House of Representatives, there are 88 women and two of them are veterans.

Why are women so underrepresented? They can raise money and they win elections at comparable, if not higher, rates than men. The answer, shown in decades of research, is that many fewer women run for office.

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