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Jeanne M. Holm, 88, dies; first female Air Force general

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; B07

Jeanne M. Holm, 88, who opened doors for women in the military as the first female general in the Air Force and the first woman in any military branch to reach the rank of two-star general, died Feb. 15 of cardiovascular disease at Anne Arundel Medical Center. She lived in Edgewater.

From 1965 to 1975, Gen. Holm was the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force, which had been resistant to accepting women in its ranks. Women were not allowed to fly and, except for nurses, were not permitted near the front lines during wartime.

Almost from the moment she was appointed director of a small corps called Women in the Air Force in 1965, Gen. Holm strategically advanced the role of women while fighting tactical battles with an entrenched male power structure.

Using a combination of tact and high-level maneuvering honed by years of duty at the Pentagon, she increased opportunities for women in the Air Force and other branches of the military. She banished outdated uniforms for the women under her command, secured plum overseas assignments that had long been denied and expanded the field of jobs available to women.

In 1971, one year after almost retiring in frustration, she was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, as the first woman in the Air Force to receive a general's star. Two years later, she became the most visible symbol of the progress she advocated when she became a two-star major general, the first woman ever to reach that rank in the U.S. military.

Gen. Holm was often a lonely but prescient voice for change in the military, championing many ideas in the 1970s that did not find full acceptance until years later. She called for women to be admitted to the service academies, to participate fully in campus ROTC programs, to be allowed to serve as pilots and to have greater roles in combat -- all of which have come to pass.

She also worked closely with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, on the case of Frontiero v. Richardson, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. A female Air Force officer, Sharron Frontiero, had been denied housing and medical benefits when she claimed her husband as a dependent. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the military could not withhold benefits from women that it granted to men.

"I can say in absolute candor and honesty that we wouldn't have women in the Air Force without Jeanne Holm," Air Force Brig. Gen. Jean E. Klick told the Oregonian newspaper in 1990. "She came up at a critical time, when there was a big move in the Air Force that wanted to do away with women altogether. She was the one person who was smart enough, shrewd enough and persuasive enough to handle that job."

Jeanne Marjorie Holm was born June 23, 1921, in Portland, Ore., and was raised by a single mother. She was a silversmith when she joined the Army in 1942 and worked primarily as a truck driver during World War II.

After two years at Portland's Lewis & Clark College, she reenlisted in the Army in 1948 and transferred to the Air Force a year later.

"I was flat broke," she recalled last year to Investor's Business Daily. "I slept in the car along the way."

She had planning roles in the Berlin Airlift and became a personnel officer. In 1952, she was the first woman to attend the Air Command Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. After further study at the University of Maryland and elsewhere, she received a bachelor's degree from Lewis & Clark in 1956.

She was assigned to NATO in Italy in the 1950s and had long stints at the Pentagon, where she encountered opposition from old-guard officers, including Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965.

"At times it got really depressing," Gen. Holm told the Oregonian. "When you were face to face with some of the garbage they were handing out, it just wore you out. One time, in 1970, I handed in my retirement papers. I'd just had it up to the eyeballs."

But when a new general took over the Air Force's personnel office, he began to see things Gen. Holm's way, and policies quickly changed.

When Gen. Holm retired in 1975, her decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal and Legion of Merit. She advised Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on women's issues and, in 1982, published a history, "Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution," which she revised in 1992. A New York Times reviewer called it "a classic work in its field."

She published a book in 1998 on women in World War II and helped plan the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

For many years, she shared a home with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Norma Loeser of Edgewater.

Survivors include a brother.

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