Former President Gerald Ford Remembered

President Gerald R. Ford(1913-2006)
Library of Congress Photo.

As the nation prepared to say a final goodbye to its 38th president, more than 100 military women gathered at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, on December 30. Along with hundreds of mourners, women from across the generations and from every branch of service stood in ranks to honor Gerald R. Ford–a long-time supporter of military women and the president who signed the ground-breaking legislation allowing women to attend the Army, Navy and Air Force service academies. In accordance with the former president’s wishes, the Ford family invited past and present military women to assemble at the memorial during a scheduled stop of the funeral procession that carried President Ford’s body to the Capitol Rotunda where he would lay in state until his funeral on Jan. 2, 2007.

Though probably best known for the circumstances surrounding his presidency–being the only US president not elected to office, the Watergate scandal that put him there and his 1974 pardon of former President Richard Nixon, which is said to have cost him the 1976 election–President Gerald Ford is also remembered as a great supporter and friend to military women. He was a central figure in one of the most controversial topics surrounding military women in the 1970s.

With the onset of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973, women’s roles in the military were expanding as never before; and it was in this atmosphere of change that the highly-controversial topic of opening US service academies to women came to the forefront. The admission of women at the academies would bring to an end hundreds of years of tradition at these all-male institutions and would challenge prevailing notions about the mission of these military schools.

In 1974, the Department of Defense maintained that the service academies were “institutions focused on producing leadership for combat,”1 but American opinion was divided. Military and political leaders alike–both men and women–voiced opinions on both sides of the issue. Finally, on Oct. 7, 1975, President Ford signed the landmark legislation directing the military services to admit women to the Army, Navy and Air Force academies the following year. Also in 1975, the Coast Guard–under the purview of the Department of Transportation–announced that it would accept women in 1976.2 The schools adapted facilities, uniforms and physical education requirements to accommodate women, and the first-ever co-educational classes graduated from the nation’s four service academies in 1980. Then, and now, the curricula prepared women as leaders in defense of America, despite their exclusion from certain combat-related roles.

As military women gathered in Washington to honor the one-time commander-in-chief, miles away from the fanfare of the presidential funeral, another military woman penned her recollections of the president she had served 30 years before. Retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm, former director of Women in the Air Force and the first US servicewoman promoted to major general, actually served under Gerald Ford twice. During her final tour in the Air Force she called him commander-in-chief and a year after her military retirement Maj. Gen. Holm was invited to the White House to work for President Ford again, as his Special Assistant for Women.

In her candid, personal retrospective of the man who led the American military and the nation for but a brief two years, she writes:

“Even though he found himself as president, a position he never sought, at a time that was one of the more turbulent in our nation’s history, Gerald R. Ford proved himself to be the right man for the job–a leader with deeply held faith in his country and confidence in his own abilities.

The challenge he faced was restoring America’s faith in its leadership and institutions. In typical fashion, he stepped up to the plate, appointed good people for the jobs to be done and set a tone of honesty, openness and integrity for his administration.

In 1976, I was invited to serve as Special Assistant to the President for Women. Having just completed a full military career, much of which was served in the Pentagon, I was not eager for new challenges. But when I entered the Oval Office and the president stepped smiling from behind his desk and said, ‘Jeanne, it was nice of you to come,’ I was hooked. We talked about the challenges faced by women in the work force and society. He spoke with pride about how he had helped guide the Equal Rights Amendment through the Congress, where it had languished for years, and about legislation he had recently signed requiring the reluctant Army, Navy and Air Force to admit women into their service academies. This was his way of conveying to me, in simple terms, where he stood on the issue of women’s rights and responsibilities, which in those days constituted one of the most contentious social issues of the time. He proved to be a leader who didn’t just talk-the-talk, he walked-the-walk.

In dealing with the issues and decisions, the ground rule was simple: it was never about him or his “legacy” or about partisan advantage or public opinion polls, it was always about what was in the best interest of the country–that was the bottom line.

America was truly blessed to have Gerald R. Ford as our president as well as the example of Mrs. Ford and their devoted family. While we mourn his passing, I like to think of his life as a giant oak falling in the forest, leaving a hole in the sky for the sun to cast light into the shadows below. We should be grateful for the light rather than mourning the darkness.”

From the insights offered by Maj. Gen. Holm to his personal wish for an assembly of military women at his funeral, it is clear that throughout his political career, and his life, President Gerald Ford never forgot America’s women. As a nation we bid farewell to a former president and as military women we say goodbye to a loyal supporter and friend, who, in doing what he thought best for his country, changed the face of the American military forever.

For those interested in learning more about the first co-educational class at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY, check out our Oral History Highlight, “At the Gates of West Point: The Story of Marene (Nyberg) Allison and the First Class of Women at the USMA.”

(January 2007)

1Holm, Jeanne, Maj. Gen., USAF (Ret.). Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution.(Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1993), 307.
2Holm, 309.

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