Wellesley College President Becomes First Commissioned Officer of U.S. Navy Directed WAVES in WWII

November 12, 2012

Mildred Helen McAfee was born in Parkville, Mo., in 1900. She graduated from Vassar College in 1920 and received an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1928. Her career in higher education included roles as professor, dean, and executive secretary of Vassar’s alumnae organization.

According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, Wellesley College ended an 18-month search involving more than 100 candidates, by naming 36-year-old Mildred McAfee, a woman possessing “intellectual honesty, leadership, tolerance, savoir-faire, sympathetic understanding of youth, vision, and a sense of humor,” as the new president of Wellesley College in 1936.

The site continues:

As president of Wellesley, McAfee had the opportunity and the authority to put to work what she had learned from four different institutions of higher learning. Her presidency emphasized truth as the greatest and most precious object of scholarly pursuit. McAfee also defended the validity of a liberal arts education against accusations of impracticality and indulgence during the great depression. She considered it valuable in building the power of the individual and in shaping a greater internal and external awareness of the world. McAfee subscribed to the belief that the liberal arts cannot be taken as preparation for a career, but as preparation for life. As some one especially concerned with women’s education, she considered this type of learning invaluable toward social equity.

As Wellesley’s take on leadership has always stressed service, it is no wonder that McAfee was willing to take a temporary leave of absence from her work at Wellesley in order to accept the appointment to serve as the first director of the Navy’s newly established WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). McAfee was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander in August 1942, becoming the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy. In November 1943, after Congress passed new legislation, she was promoted to the rank of Captain.

According to Navy Web pages, Captain McAfee guided the growth of the WAVES to a force of more 80,000 Navy women in a variety of occupational specialties, including officers. (Women had served during World War I, but in more limited capacities, and always led by men.) Many accounts remark on her brilliance, competence, sense of humor, and lack of affectations. She remained with the WAVES until 1945 and received the Distinguished Service Medal for her work as director of the Women’s Reserve. She was the first woman to receive this Naval honor; she also received the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

McAfee shakes hands with New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardiaIn this 1943 photo, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (left) looks on as McAfee shakes hands with Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, Chief of Naval Personnel, during commissioning ceremonies at the new training school for female Navy (WAVES) and Coast Guard (SPARS) Officers, at Hunter College in New York.

The same year she returned to Wellesley, 1945, McAfee married the Reverend Dr. Douglass Horton, dean emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School and Minister of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. She retired from Wellesley in 1948. McAfee residence hall was named in her honor in 1951. She continued to work with her husband for many years, was on educational and charitable boards throughout her life, and died in 1994 at the age of 94.