The overwhelming lack of women’s representation in the public sphere is a problem that is hiding in plain sight. Despite women’s immense contributions throughout the history of the United States, there are currently no women depicted on our paper currency, not a single federal holiday in honor of a woman and not one major airport named for a woman. In the U.S. capital, of the 100 statues on display in National Statuary Hall, only nine portray women. This huge imbalance creates the impression that women have not accomplished anything worthy of public recognition and that stories of women are not worth telling.
Last Tuesday, I took my 3-year-old daughter with me to vote. She asked me what that meant, and I told her that we get to decide who is the boss of our town. She told me we should vote for the girl, because we are both girls. Even my 3-year-old can articulate the desire to see herself reflected in our larger society. I wonder what it will be like for her when she realizes that although our town has had female City Council members, our country has never had a female president.
In San Francisco, there are 87 statues on public display. Of these, only two portray nonfictional women (Dianne Feinstein and Florence Nightingale). This inequity led to the recent passage of an ordinance in San Francisco requiring that women be depicted in at least 30 percent of city-sponsored artwork. It is critical that we address the lack of female visibility at a community level. If we honor real women in the public sphere, we will change the reality for girls and women in the real world. San Francisco’s commitment to increase the representation of real women in public artwork displays is a great start.
And now I have initiated a campaign that seeks to have Oakland International Airport renamed for UC Berkeley alumna and Women Airforce Service Pilot, or WASP, Maggie Gee. This would make Oakland International Airport the first major U.S. airport named for a woman and the only U.S. airport named for a woman of color.
Maggie Gee was born in Berkeley on Aug. 5, 1923. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a pilot. Her family would spend Sundays watching planes take off from the Oakland Airport. At that time, though, institutionalized racism against Asian Americans and gender-based discrimination were in full effect.
The start of World War II created a window of opportunity for Gee not only to serve her country but also to achieve her lifelong dream of flying. After earning her private pilot’s license, she was accepted into the WASP training program. The WASPs were some of the first women to fly for the U.S. military. Of more than 25,000 applicants, just over 1,000 women ultimately earned their wings in this elite program. Maggie Gee was one of only two Chinese American women to fly as a WASP.
At WASP training in Sweetwater, Texas, Maggie Gee met my grandmother, fellow WASP Elaine Danforth Harmon. After training, Gee and my grandmother were stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. As the war neared its end, the WASPs were disbanded.
After serving her country in Europe, Maggie Gee returned to the Bay Area, where she completed her college education at UC Berkeley with a degree in physics. Even though she had risked her life for her country, Gee was still seen by some as inferior, and anti-Asian discrimination was still rampant. After graduation, she worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and was active in politics as a tireless community advocate.
For decades, the contributions of Gee and her fellow WASPs were all but forgotten. The military sealed their records for more than three decades. In 2010, Gee and other surviving members of the WASP program received the Congressional Gold Medal for their outstanding service during WWII.
Despite these gains, the field of aviation remains heavily dominated by men. According to the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide, women represent a little more than 6 percent of all U.S. commercial airline pilots. In 2015, when my grandmother passed away, our family’s request to have her ashes placed in Arlington National Cemetery was denied. We found out that WASPs were not eligible to be in Arlington. My family and I created a petition against this, which helped lead to the passage of federal legislation ensuring the right of WASPs to be laid to rest in Arlington. Now, the Texas State Board of Education is considering eliminating information about WASPs from its elementary school curriculum — literally erasing WASPs from history.
Recently, I was at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. In the arrivals terminal, there is an impressive statue of the airport’s namesake. As I stood admiring the statue, a grandmother walked past with her grandson. He asked her who the man was, and she started to tell him about John Wayne — this is my vision! I want visitors to Maggie Gee Oakland International Airport to ask who she was. I want them to learn about this incredible, pioneering woman with an independent spirit. I want travelers to learn how she answered her country’s call during WWII and how she served her community over the course of her lifetime. I want little girls to know that they, too, can be pilots and scientists and leaders.
Maggie Gee was a trailblazer, an advocate and a role model. She represented the best of the Bay Area, and I can think of no better namesake for Oakland International Airport.