Helen James

Honorary Degrees


California State University, Fresno​

Helen G. James' family instilled in her the importance of military pride. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, she joined the United States Air Force intending to make it her career. During this time, McCarthyism was rampant, and this period would be known as the “Lavender Scare." Ms. James was investigated and arrested for her suspected sexuality. Under pressure from her superiors, she quit the Air Force and was forced to sign an “undesirable" discharge.  

Ms. James' military discharge left her full of shame and without a clear path. Ineligible for the GI Bill, she was able to attend Stanford University and receive a master's degree in physical therapy as a result of a scholarship from the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis. She became a master practitioner of Rolfing and used this technique to treat thousands of patients over her long career. In 1973, she began teaching for a fledgling physical therapy program at California State University, Fresno. Today, the program is sought out by students from across the country.

Despite her professional success, Ms. James' “undesirable" discharge continued to affect her negatively. Without the official “honorable" listing, she was blocked from receiving benefits such as health insurance. She was also forbidden from being buried with a color guard or interred in a national cemetery. For a woman for whom military service meant so much, this was devastating.


After more than 60 years, she filed a lawsuit against the Air Force. At the age of 90, Ms. James finally had the word “undesirable" stripped from her official military record. For her, it was vindication and affirmed her belief that the early discrimination and persecution served as the “engine behind her success."

Ms. James has received numerous accolades. She participated in the award-winning podcast “This Is Criminal" for the episode titled “Lavender Scare." She participated in the Central Valley Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. and was honored at the 2018 Women's Equality Day.

One of her most meaningful honors is having her military and discharge records, as well as documents from her lawsuit, included in The Helen G. James Collection held at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

In recognition of her exemplary career, service to her country and her patients, and her courageous perseverance in the face of adversity, the Board of Trustees of the California State University and California State University, Fresno are proud to confer upon Helen G. James an honorary Doctor of Science.