The nation’s first African-American female major general has achieved things she said she believes any woman can accomplish.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcelite Harris told McNamara Headquarters Complex employees they only need to believe in themselves to succeed, during a Women’s History Month Observance March 13.
“The things I did can be done by anyone. I didn’t succeed because I was the first woman to do it. Rather, I succeeded because of the way I approached and did each job that I had,” she said.
Harris spent 31 years in the Air Force, rising through the ranks with increasing responsibilities in logistics and maintenance. She recorded a series of firsts for women in the military: first female maintenance officer, first woman to be the director of maintenance for the Air Force and the first African-American female major general.
Women such as retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle, and Michelle Johnson, who recently became the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first female superintendent, are “women just like the rest of us,” Harris said.
“These women have served their country around the world, and when they came home, they fixed lunches, saw their children off to school, and after a stimulating day at the office, they cooked dinner for their family. These women and many more unsung heroines are able to do this because of the barriers that have been removed along the way,” she added.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave the order allowing women to serve in combat early this year, but Harris said women in combat is nothing new.
“Whether you agree with that movement or not, the fact remains that women have been in combat since man has been involved in wars, from the American Revolution to the war in Afghanistan,” she said.
During the Battle of Monmouth, Mary McCauley was delivering water to troops on the front line when she came upon an injured cannon crew member.
“Mary stepped in, took his place and started filling that cannon with firing power. She did what any man would have to do in that position,” Harris said.
And women such as Deborah Sampson, who served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, wanted to serve in combat so badly they disguised themselves as men.
Harris decided to join the Air Force in the early 1960s after realizing a degree in drama probably wouldn’t lead to employment. Her cousin had just announced his plan to join the Army, and she began to see the military as a chance to gain experience and travel. But days into officer training, Harris began to regret the decision. It was one of the biggest turning points in her life.
“A lesson I learned from my father was to be true to your decision and approach that decision with determination and purpose. So you know what I did? I decided I was going to do my best,” she said.
Harris’ perseverance paid off. The harder she worked toward success, the more opportunities came her way. Even when officials twice turned down her request to reclassify from administration to maintenance, she kept asking until they approved.
Being the first female maintenance officer and first woman to be the director of maintenance for the Air Force were not goals she chased, Harris said.
“Becoming the first wasn’t a goal of mine; it just happened. It happened because of the lessons and philosophies I learned along the way,” she said, encouraging employees to trust their decisions and always persevere.
The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”