As anyone familiar with The Junior League knows, it’s got its share of WASPs. But this past week, we applauded the long-awaited recognition of WASPs with a different sting. To coincide with Women’s History Month, the U.S. Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the approximately 300 living members of the original 1,100 Women Airport Service Pilots (WASPs), many of them members of The Junior League, who tested and transported military aircraft between U.S. airbases so that male pilots could conduct combat missions overseas in World War II.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States, and it was a long time coming. Flying B-13s and B-17s with nicknames like Pistol Packin’ Mama, the self-trained pilots risked their lives, often towing planes that served as targets for ground-based gunners and flying with parachutes designed to fit their much larger male counterparts – yet were denied the basic benefits available to military servicemen (flagged draped coffins, paid transport home).

Cornelia Fort, who, like 38 others died in the line of service when the BT-13 she was ferrying collided in mid-air in Texas with another plane and plummeted to earth, was a member of The Junior League of Nashville.

In a letter to her mother in January 1942, she wrote, “For all the girls in the WAFS (the group was called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron when it began), I think the most concrete moment of happiness came at our first review. Suddenly and for the first time we felt part of something larger.”

Just a month earlier, Fort had evaded the machine-gun fire of a Japanese Kamikaze bomber over Pearl Harbor while teaching a young male student to fly. She managed to land the plane safely, despite the fact that other training planes that were up in the air at the same time never returned. When her student asked, “When do I fly solo?” she replied, “Not today, brother.”

Now that’s moxie.

To listen to the NPR story on the WASPs, click here: