AAUW Member and Coast Guard Commander Dorothy Stratton Honored for a Lifetime of Fostering Women Leaders
It was only in 2015 that the Pentagon formally lifted its ban on women in combat. But more than a century earlier, one woman veteran laid the groundwork for thousands of military women’s careers. AAUW member Dorothy Stratton (1899–2006) mentored women throughout the 20th century in careers from academia to the Marine Corps. It’s no surprise that she has been recognized as a 2016 National Women’s History Project honoree.
As Purdue University’s first full-time dean of women, Stratton greatly increased the enrollment of women during her tenure and constructed new residence halls for them. In 1942, she took a leave of absence to join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) as a lieutenant, attending the first class at the then-new U.S. Naval Training Station at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Although she was eager to serve her country during wartime, Stratton credited fellow AAUW member Lillian Gilbreth, a professor of engineering at Purdue, for convincing her she had the leadership skills to do so.
On November 23, 1942, not long after Stratton joined the WAVES, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Public Law 772, creating the Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard. During the search for a leader of the group, AAUW General Director Kathryn McHale submitted names of qualified members to the president, including Stratton. Her endorsement succeeded; Roosevelt asked Stratton to head the Women’s Reserve. She accepted and moved to Washington, D.C., to set up residence at the AAUW headquarters at 1634 I St. NW, located just two blocks from the White House.
During World War II, the AAUW headquarters became not only a centralized location for women leaders of the military, but it also was their home. As reported in the December 1942 issue of the AAUW General Director’s Letter, the building was “a war time center for women important in national and international affairs, and serves an important purpose in the crowded capitol.” Stratton lived at the AAUW building for the duration of the war, along with Lt. Cmdr. Mildred McAfee (head of the WAVES) and Oveta Culp Hobby (director of the Women’s Army Corps).
One of Stratton’s first tasks was to actually name the Women’s Reserve. She combined the first initials of the words semper paratus and its English translation, “always ready,” and came up with SPAR, also the name for part of a ship. Initially, many SPARs recruits were former members of the WAVES, until the Coast Guard set up its own recruitment and training center in Palm Beach, Florida. Stratton lamented that recruitment wasn’t always an easy process. At the time, many women could receive higher wages in industrial jobs formerly held by men, and there were strong stigmas and unfounded rumors — including the fallacy that women’s units were actually organized prostitution rings — that deterred many women from enlisting.
However, during her tenure Dorothy Stratton managed to recruit nearly 10,000 enlisted women and 1,000 officers. And after the units were established, AAUW continued to advocate for women’s full recognition in the military. In 1944, the association proudly supported Item 14 of HR 1616, which entitled female members of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve to the same benefits enjoyed by male members of the Coast Guard. The bill passed.
Following her service in the SPARS, Stratton returned to Purdue as dean of women and then held leadership positions at the International Monetary Fund and with the Girl Scouts. She remained a member of the AAUW West Lafayette (IN) Branch, and in 1964 she served as the International Federation of University Women’s representative to the U.N.’s 8th Commission on the Status of Women. Her report is in AAUW’s archives, in which she noted that “from the extensive documentation before the commission and the discussions, it appears that there has been steady but slow progress in the status of women throughout the world, but that there is still a long way to go before women will be full partners with men in all parts of the world and in all aspects of life.”
Without a doubt, Dorothy Stratton spent her entire life, all 107 years of it, ensuring that women could assume full equality with men in all parts of life. She witnessed huge progress in the long road to women’s full acceptance and recognition in the military, a road that she would surely agree still has a ways to go.
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