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Women in the Air Force Reserve have a rich history

  • Published
  • By Maj. Marissa Kester

From the beginning, women in the Air Force Reserve have made invaluable contributions to national defense and humanitarian efforts worldwide. From providing critical medical support during natural disasters to participating in combat missions, female Reservists have demonstrated unwavering dedication and professionalism in every endeavor.

Just as the Air Force would not be able to do all that it does today without the Reserve, the Reserve would not be able to do what it does without women in the ranks. 

In June 1948, less than two months after the Air Force Reserve was established, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, allowing women to serve as permanent, regular members in the U.S. military. This means the Air Force Reserve has never operated without women in the ranks. Over the last seven decades, the Reserve has continued to evolve as a symbol of diversity and inclusion, with the highest percentages of women across all ranks and services – 27.7% in the Reserve and 21.1% in the regular Air Force as of October 2020.

For the first 30 years, women’s integration into the force was slow and women were still largely thought of – and managed – as an auxiliary force. Career limitations and stovepipes, in addition to cultural biases about what a woman could or should do, kept numbers in the force low. 

The 1970s were a pivotal decade for women in the military with the crossover of the women’s rights movement and the creation of the all-volunteer military. In response to societal changes and evolving attitudes, the Air Force Reserve began actively recruiting women for a diverse range of roles, including pilots, technicians and medical personnel.

As a component filled with Airmen who, by design, spend most of their time in the civilian sector, attitudes towards women’s integration at any point in history have been positive, particularly in nontraditional fields.

Pioneers like 2nd Lt. Kathleen Rambo (the first Reservist female pilot) and Tech. Sgt. Cherise Miller March (one of the first 100 females allowed in the security specialist field) paved the way for future generations of women to follow suit. The Gulf War further showcased the indispensable contributions of military, and particularly Reserve, women by elevating their visibility and recognition on a national scale. During the conflict, 24.5% of mobilized Air Force Reservists and 29.8% of deployed Air Force Reservists were women.

Throughout the last two decades, women in the Reserve have continued to excel. In 2016, shortly after the Defense Department opened all combat jobs to women, Lt. Gen. Stayce D. Harris became the first black woman promoted to that rank in the Air Force. Her promotion was also the first time an Air Force Reservist was promoted to that rank, other than the AFRC commander. Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller became the first female commander of the Air Force Reserve Command. 

 Two years later, on September 7, 2018, Miller became the first Air Force Reservist to lead an active-duty major command when she assumed the leadership role at Air Mobility Command. That same day, she pinned on her fourth star becoming the first Reservist to earn the rank of General while on active duty.

Despite remarkable progress, challenges persist for women in the Air Force Reserve. Issues such as gender bias, unequal opportunities for career advancement and work-life balance continue to impact female Reservists.

However, concerted efforts by military leadership and advocacy groups aim to address these challenges, ensuring equitable treatment and opportunities for all service members. As women continue to make strides in the Air Force Reserve, their journey serves as an inspiration for future generations. By challenging stereotypes and defying limitations, they pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable military landscape. Their commitment, courage and dedication embody the core values of the Air Force Reserve, reflecting a shared aspiration to uphold freedom and defend the nation, regardless of gender.

For additional reading see: Maj. Marissa N. Kester, There from the Beginning: Women in the U.S. Air Force, Air University Press, 2021, free download at

(Kester is an IMA assigned to the Space Training and Readiness Command History Office.)