"If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now."
Mildred Helen McAfee Horton was born in Park College, Missouri, on May 12, 1900. Very little is known about her early life. It is clear through her life's work, though, that both faith and education were highly valued in her home and would be the guiding principles of her life. Her father was theologian Cleland Boyd McAfee, and her grandfather was the founder of Park College.
She grew up in Parkville, Missouri, but when she was an adolescent, her family moved to Chicago, where she attended the Francis W. Parker School.
She attended college at Vassar, where she studied economics, sociology, and English. She was active in extracurricular activities, and developed a reputation as a leader. She enjoyed playing basketball and hockey, was on the debate team, and involved in student government. She also volunteered with the school's Christian Association, where she served as president during her senior year. She graduated as Phi Beta Kappa in 1920.
After graduating, she taught elementary and middle school aged girls, but in the fall of 1923, she become an acting professor of economics and sociology at Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee, and in 1928, she moved to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where she become Dean of Women and professor of Sociology. During the summers, though, she studied at the University of Chicago, where she earned her M.A. in Sociology in 1928. She remained at Centre College until 1932, when she returned to Vassar as the Executive Secretary of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College.
In her postion at Vassar, she worked to raise money for the construction of Kenyon Hall and became involved in revisions to the school’s social regulations to give women more independence. In 1934, she accepted the position of Dean of College Women at Oberlin College.
In 1936, at the age of 36, she became president of Wellesley College. The criteria they were looking for were “intellectual honesty, leadership, tolerance, savoir-faire, sympathetic understanding of youth, vision, and a sense of humor.”
As president of Wellesley, she was able to draw upon all that she had learned at the various colleges she had been a part of over the previous 16 years. In particular, she emphasized truth, and called it the greatest and most precious object of scholarly pursuit. She was a staunch advocate for the importance of a liberal arts education, and spoke out against accusations of impracticality and indulgence from many critics during the great depression. She believed quite strongly in the value of individual achievement, and the importance of internal and external awareness of the world. She defended the belief that the liberal arts were more than merely a preparation for a career, but instead were a preparation for life. In particular, she considered a liberal arts education to be an invaluable tool to gain social equity for women.
|Captain Erl C.B. Gould and Captain Mildred McAfee during inspection.|
"I envisage the function of this college, or any college, to prepare an oncoming generation of students to disseminate truth. It is my conviction that truth is more easily given a hearing if it is presented by a healthy, well-adjusted, effective human being who sees the truth in the light of a world-philosophy which gives it meaning."As a measure of her tremendous ability, when she took her leave of absence in 1942 to become the first Director of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), three women had to divide up the tasks she had done as president. As director of the WAVES, she was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, becoming the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy. For nearly three years she divided her time between Wellesley and Washington, DC.
Mildred McAfee in an address to Wellesley students
During the war, women volunteers were needed to perform non-combat domestic war jobs, enabling more male officers to serve in combat. Under her guidance, the WAVES grew to 80,000 women, working as flight instructors, weather observers, truck drivers and air traffic controllers. Their service during wartime paved the way for the expanding role of women in the armed services.
A newsman's joke that WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) actually meant "Women Are Very Essential, Sometimes" might grate on some women, but Capt. Mildred H. McAfee took the jest with a grain of salt and adapted it as one of her own bon mots. Horton, the first director of the WAVES, was appointed the first female line officer in the Navy on Aug. 3, 1942.
McAfee brought this formidable competence to her new military duties. The Navy wasn't at all sure it needed women. Most of the men "Capt. Mac" dealt with outranked her, yet she was "a brilliant, articulate person with a sense of humor and no phony affectations," wrote Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm. "She could disarm everyone from the lowliest yardarm to the top brass of the Navy—and did."
|US Navy WAVES Captain Mildred McAfee listening to Storekeeper 2nd Class
Dorothy Oates, Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor,|
US Territory of Hawaii, 4 Jul 1945 Source: United States National Archive
"All we women wanted to do was to get the war over with and get back to our other lives."While serving as Director, she worked to change the Navy's policy against inviting African American women to serve. While Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women were allowed to join the WAVES from the beginning, African American women were barred from serving in the Navy and Coast Guard until late 1944, because of a literal reading of the statement that women were “freeing a man to fight.” Since African American soldiers still were only allowed to serve their country by working in the mess hall or the laundry instead of being sent to the front lines, the Navy's thinking was that African American women would not be needed to fulfill that duty. This deeply offended Captain McAfee, and she lobbied against it.
|Col. Streeter poses with two other women's reserve directors: Capt Dorothy Stratton, head of the Coast Guard SPARS, left,|
and Capt Mildred McAfee, of the WAVEs.
"At that stage in this outrageous situation of civil rights and wrongs, there was just no thought about admitting a black woman to replace a white man. There had been a great pressure from the black community as to why women couldn't be in the service… Leaders of the negro community were just awfully hurt that in this call for service to the nation their women couldn't be included."By the time she finished her tour of duty with the WAVES in 1946, she had been promoted to the rank of Captain, and been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war, she married the Rev. Douglas Horton, dean emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School and Minister of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches, and returned to her position at Wellesley, where she remained until her retirement in 1949.
After retiring , she stayed active in the fight for more opportunities for women in education and the military, serving on a number of corporate, civic, and educational boards, and served as president of the American Association of Colleges. She served as a UNESCO delegate, was a director of the New York Life Insurance Company, the National Broadcasting Company, Radio Corporation of America, and the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Advancement of Education. Later, she co-chaired the National Women’s Conference on Civil Rights.
After the war, Mrs. Horton continued to be an outspoken advocate for improving the position of women in the military. In one speech, she criticized the "folly of a national policy of discussing manpower in a national emergency as though it were only male power," adding that such an attitude put women in the "category of a national luxury instead of a national asset."She also used her time to become more active in her religious faith. She worked with her husband in his church and civic work, and served in many leadership roles within various religious associations, including as the Vice President of the Federal Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and President of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
Having written her master’s thesis on the “The Young Women’s Christian Association; a Case Study of a Religious Movement,” McAfee was interested in the role that religious organizations could play in the world, and she worked as an influential member of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. She considered religion a tool that could bridge gaps, something capable of bringing a greater understanding to people through common devotion, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim.After her husband died in 1968, she continued her social and religious work until her death in 1994. By that time, she had more then 31 honorary degrees for her achievements.
"Being a woman is interesting, but it shouldn’t stop you from being a person."