Alabama native Fran McKee (1926-2002) became the first woman unrestricted line officer in American history to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Until 1967, no woman, by law, regardless of her abilities, contributions, or accomplishments, could be promoted to flag rank (rear admiral or higher). It was not until June 1, 1976, that McKee became America's first unrestricted female admiral (an officer who can command both men and women across naval bureaus).
McKee was born on September 13, 1926, in Florence, Lauderdale County. She was the oldest of the three daughters of Thomas Walker McKee, a special investigator for the Southern Railroad Company, and Geneva Lumpkins McKee. Because of her father's work assignments, the family moved several times during her formative years, and McKee lived in a number of communities in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
McKee graduated from Phillips High School in Birmingham at the age of 15. In 1950, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Alabama. That same year, she was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy. McKee's original goal was to serve in the military for two years, save her money and earn GI Bill benefits, and then attend medical school. However, McKee soon decided to make the Navy her career. She was promoted through the ranks, rising from lieutenant, junior grade in 1952 to rear admiral (upper half) in 1980.
In 1951, McKee served in Washington, D.C., as an aide to the Chief of Naval Research, as the procurement officer for Women Personnel at the Naval Recruiting Station in Boston in 1954, as Training Coordinator for the Naval Damage Control School in 1958, and as Officer-in-Charge of the Naval Women Officers School in 1965. She completed studies at the General Line School and the Naval Postgraduate School in 1957 and was one of the first two women to graduate from the Naval War College/School of Naval Warfare in 1970. After graduation, she served at the Bureau of Naval Personnel as Head of the Special Inquiries and Publication Section and as Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Human Goals. Also in 1970, she earned a Master of Science degree in international affairs from George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.
As she moved through the ranks, McKee became the first woman to serve in many of her assigned commands, such as the Naval Security Group (1973), Chief of Naval Education and Training (1976), and the Navy-wide Director of Human Resources Management (1978). Tours of duty abroad included service as the personnel officer at both the U.S. Naval Air Station in Port Lyautey, Morocco, North Africa, in 1957 and the U.S. Naval Air Station in Rota, Spain, in 1967. McKee served as the senior female naval officer on the Committee to Study Equal Rights for Women in the Military that resulted in new opportunities for women in the armed services in 1972. She became an advisor to a variety of governmental bodies on issues dealing with women in the military.
McKee's military awards include the Legion of Merit with Gold Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal with Bronze Star. Some of her community honors include her induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 1979 and the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2007; she was awarded the Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor in 1982.
Her public service activities included chairing the Legislative and Employment Committee of the Women's Advisory Committee for the Department of Veterans Affairs, service on the National Advisory Committee for the Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation, serving as a Board Member of the Armed Services YMCA National Committee, and being an active member of the Episcopal Church.
McKee retired from active naval service on June 1, 1981. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 3, 2002, in Annandale,
Virginia, and was buried, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
C. William McKee
Published January 7, 2009
Last updated September 21, 2011