Despite serving when women had few opportunities, Jeanne Holm became a leader who promoted gender equality in the Air Force.
Jeanne Holm entered the military at a time when women service members were treated like second-class citizens. After observing rampant inequality, she developed a contempt for the armed forces’ gendered hierarchy and resolved to change it into a more equitable space for all. Throughout her years of service, including those in the highest administrative levels of the Air Force, she smashed many barriers and set the branch on a path filled with greater opportunities for women.
Holm was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1921. She was raised by her widowed mother alongside two brothers. Due to economic depression, her family constantly moved around for much of her childhood. After graduating high school, Holm decided to contribute to the family’s finances and studied silversmithing under one of the few women silversmiths in the nation.
When the U.S. officially entered World War II in December 1941, Holm felt duty bound to serve her country. Her chance came in early 1942, when Congress formed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). After obtaining the full support of her mother, Holm immediately enlisted with the WAAC.
Holm soon realized that the range of opportunities available to women in the Army was extremely limited. After completing basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, she was given three options for her career in the military: clerk typist, cook or truck driver. Holm could not envision herself typing or sitting behind a stove for the rest of her life, so she settled for attending motor transport school.
After graduating, Holm took a chance applying to Officer Candidate School (OCS). OCS only accepted college graduates and Holm did not hold such a degree. Additionally, over 35,000 women from around the country applied and only 1,000 anticipated admission. To her surprise, OCS selected her, and she became part of the first class of enlisted women to attend.
After she finished OCS, she received orders to help open a new WAAC training center at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Holm helped organize everything from scratch, developing her own training materials, charts and classes. Her leadership and previous infantry training with the Army landed her a position as company commander. She accomplished all this while only being 21 years old. Throughout her time at Fort Oglethorpe, Holm continued assuming leadership positions. By 23, she was the regimental commander for 18 basic training companies.
Holm spent her post-war years obtaining a college degree. In 1948, women were officially integrated into the armed forces and Holm received a card from the Army asking if she would like to return to active duty. Though she enjoyed her college life, she wanted to keep her options open and filled out the card. Soon after, Holm discovered that she had mistakenly signed up for the Air Force and was transferred.
Though new to the Air Force, Holm quickly took on leadership roles. She was sent to Germany to assist with the Berlin Airlift, a U.S.-backed operation to fly supplies into USSR-controlled Germany. There, she served as assistant director of plans and operations. When she returned to the U.S. in 1952, she was selected by her superiors to be the first woman to attend Air Command and Staff College.
Holm spent the next decades of her life assuming roles within the higher levels of military administration. She worked in the Pentagon, staffing once for the director of Women in the Air Force (WAF) and again for the director of Air Force Manpower and Organization.
Equipped with years of military leadership and experience working in the Pentagon, Holm became the director of WAF in November 1965. In this role, she revised old marriage and sexual education policies within the Air Force that disproportionately burdened active-duty women. She also expanded opportunities for women to serve at bases once reserved for men and redesigned the woman’s uniform.
Holm retired in 1975 but remained an active advocate for women’s rights. She also published “Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution” in 1992. She died in 2010.
For her service, Holm became the first woman in the Air Force to be promoted to brigadier general – in 1971 – and subsequently the first woman in the armed forces to be promoted to major general – in 1973. In 2000, Holm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She also received an Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.
We honor her service.
Writer: Calvin Wong
Editor: Chiara Hampton
Researcher: Hannah Bundschuh
Graphic Designer: Katie Rahill