SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
For most, becoming a mother is a time for celebration, not discrimination. Before 1975, being pregnant while in the military was not allowed. As a result, pregnant women were involuntarily separated. However, a new policy in 1975 allowed women to continue to serve while pregnant and after giving birth.
Retired Lt. Col. Cheryl Hines-Smith enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Feb. 1, 1968, at 20 years old. Contemplating following in her father’s footsteps and joining the military, she dropped out of college and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery assessment. After she visited McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, she decided the military was the right career for her.
Before the policy was passed, one woman pioneered the way for thousands of female service members after her.
“In my father’s honor, I joined for him; he was so proud of me,” said Hines-Smith. “I guess I took the place of his son he never had.”
Hines-Smith enlisted in the Air Force when being a woman came with various sets of challenges.
“At basic training, we had to wear lipstick and perfume,” said Hines-Smith. “I thought I came in to do a job.”
Nonetheless, she graduated basic military training and headed to her first duty station, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where she met her husband. She was overjoyed when she discovered they were pregnant. Even though she was excited to have her first baby, her career was in jeopardy because women were not allowed to stay in the service while pregnant.
Hines-Smith’s commander knew that it would be a challenge for a couple to go from two paychecks to one. She did not force pregnant women to immediately begin their separation paperwork, allowing Hines-Smith to stretch her time in service while pregnant.
“I worked in a building with civilian personnel, and as I got bigger and heavier [the commander] asked about the paperwork and I’d go ‘oh yes ma’am, oh yes ma’am,’ but I wasn’t in a hurry,” said Hines-Smith. “I hadn’t started it.”
It wasn’t until a medical appointment when her doctor realized she was still enlisted, noticeably pregnant, and hadn’t begun her separation paperwork. He told her about another woman who was fighting to stay on active duty status while pregnant. The doctor suggested she go speak with the commander to file a different set of paperwork to allow her to remain in the service.
Hines-Smith did not want to plead her case in court, and assumed that she would be involuntarily separated once she gave birth but that she would still receive a paycheck until then.
“But in February 1971, the paperwork came back and I could stay in,” said Hines-Smith. “I was shook!”
Hines-Smith became the first woman in the military to stay on active duty status while pregnant and remained in the service after having a child. She was given a list of rules to follow, such as wearing civilian clothes when pregnant because there were no maternity uniforms, which she said she didn’t mind.
When her husband received orders to the Philippines shortly after their son was born however, his orders did not have their son listed as his dependent.
“Until the late 70’s women couldn’t have dependents, so in the old days, the man got the housing allowance,” said Hines-Smith. “But they wouldn’t give us that, they just allowed room for women in the dorms. When I needed to go get my orders, I told the people there to just put my son on my orders.”
Hines-Smith became the first woman with a dependent on her orders in 1972.
After serving for 10 years, she earned her bachelor's degree and eventually went on to commission as an officer. She conducted investigations for the inspector general, ran drug and alcohol intervention, and worked as an equal opportunity officer.
“When I was a captain in Alaska, I had to go to headquarters with some paperwork, and there was a colonel there,” said Hines-Smith. “He looked at me and said that he thinks they should stop letting women with babies in the military. I told him ‘Colonel, I don’t think you can change back time.’”
Hines-Smith went on to serve 31 years in the Air Force, allowing her to see the first steps of women’s evolving rights in the military.
“I wouldn’t have stayed in if I never learned how to speak up,” said Hines-Smith.
The Air Force has transitioned in many ways since Hines-Smith first joined. From women being involuntarily separated from service if they became pregnant, to now having lactation rooms provided to breast-feeding mothers.
It is thanks to women service members like Hines-Smith who paved the way for women serving today. Her historic effects on military history have allowed women to pursue a military career while becoming caregivers and mothers.