HILL AIR FORCE BASE — In 1975, Thomasania Montgomery Leydsman was the first African-American woman in the history of the United States Coast Guard to enroll in the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.
Leydsman faced many barriers as she served in the U.S. Coast Guard, experiences she shared last week at Hill Air Force Base during a luncheon March 24 in appreciation of Women’s History Month.
When she was born in the late 1940s, people of African-American ancestry were still sitting at the back of the bus, if they could get on the bus at all — and women weren’t doing much better, Leydsman acknowledged. When she entered her first tour of duty at Coast Guard Base Charleston, in Charleston, S.C., she was the base’s first black officer and the facility’s first black woman, and she faced many challenges as the U.S. Coast Guard adjusted to having women in the service.
“It was an awakening for me when I got to my first station because the staff officers were not excited about us women. We thought we were going to be equals and do the same thing men did, with the only restriction serving at sea, but we received a lot of criticism, and we were left out of the information link, so we were always making mistakes,” Leydsman said.
Often she wondered if she had made the right choice, especially when she encountered innuendoes, men pinching her, and men telling her she would have been better somewhere else. “It was challenging because there was so much resistance. We used to refer to it as the last bastion of white-male supremacy in the military, but as women, we decided to stick together and never, ever use our gender to get out of anything,” Leydsman said.
When she became the first female officer in the U.S. Coast Guard to serve in an operational unit, it was an uphill battle. Walking in to her first duty assignment, the lead petty officer snapped to attention, welcoming her to the office, but the second and third petty officers informed her they were not taking orders from a black woman as they walked out of the room.
“I was in shock. I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t go running and crying to my CO and let him know that my first day had a small mutiny and I couldn’t handle it,’ ” Leydsman said. So she straightened her uniform, located the officer’s chief and gave a message for him to give to her men.
“My knees were just snapping and this man was huge, but I told them they could come upstairs and get to work or they could face a court-martial for their insubordinate behavior, and then I walked back up the steps with my knees continuing to knock,” Leydsman said.
About 10 minutes later, the men came in and got to work. “I knew then that I would be judged on things like that as a woman and any help that I would have sought outside of what I could do would have been perceived as weakness.”
Another way she felt ostracized was the lack of community she felt. Officers would often socialize with one another, but as a woman, she was not included in those circles.
“There were times when I felt really alone as the only woman on base with no one to talk to. I just felt so lost and hurt that we weren’t all one big community,” Leydsman said.
Though the job had its trials and tribulations, she has touching memories that made her experience worthwhile, like the time she rescued a family whose houseboat was disintegrating in heavy seas.
“I never took the easy way out. I did whatever anybody else did, and I did it better, without whining or complaining,” Leydsman said. “I’m proud to have been someone who started at the bottom and stand on the shoulders of the people who came before me, and now people are going to stand on my shoulders.”