U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies

The armed forces of the United States reflected the rapidly changing role of women in American society by allowing women to become professionally trained officers.

Summary of Event

As the war in Vietnam came to an end with the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the Viet Cong takeover of that country in 1975, the nature of the armed forces of the United States also changed. During the war, the armed forces had utilized the draft Military, U.S.;draft to maintain a sufficient level of personnel, and to many people the draft had become a symbol of what was wrong and unfair about the war in Vietnam. Draft evaders and draft resisters numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Following the end of the war, the armed forces decided to depend on an all-volunteer force. This decision came at a time when the national economy was relatively weak and many young people were unable to find jobs. As a result, service in the armed forces looked attractive. Women in Armed Services Academies Act (1975)
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
Women;U.S. military
[kw]U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies (Oct. 8, 1975)
[kw]Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies, U.S. (Oct. 8, 1975)
[kw]Women to Armed Services Academies, U.S. Congress Admits (Oct. 8, 1975)
[kw]Armed Services Academies, U.S. Congress Admits Women to (Oct. 8, 1975)
Women in Armed Services Academies Act (1975)
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
Women;U.S. military
[g]North America;Oct. 8, 1975: U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies[02040]
[g]United States;Oct. 8, 1975: U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies[02040]
[c]Women’s issues;Oct. 8, 1975: U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies[02040]
[c]Education;Oct. 8, 1975: U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies[02040]
[c]Military history;Oct. 8, 1975: U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies[02040]
Stratton, Samuel
Hathaway, William
Ford, Gerald R.

The volunteer emphasis meant women could find careers in the services as well. By 1974, more than ninety thousand women were enlisted in the armed forces of the United States. Tradition and law directed many of these women into nursing, but an increasing number found their way into other noncombat roles. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Reserve Officers’ Training Corps[Reserve Officers Training Corps] (ROTC) program on college campuses also trained female officers. These programs were glad to accept women because enrollment in the ROTC had declined drastically during the years of the Vietnam War. An increasing dependence on advanced technology in military affairs also meant that fewer military roles called for face-to-face, hand-to-hand confrontation with an enemy.

The movement of women into the armed forces was part of the overall movement of women out of the home during the postwar women’s movement. It seemed logical for women to enroll in the service academies as well. As the defense appropriations bill for fiscal 1976 began to be debated, two of them, Representative Samuel Stratton of New York and Senator William Hathaway of Maine, sponsored amendments to the bill that would require the service academies to open enrollment to women.

The U.S. Military Academy U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, is the nation’s oldest service academy, followed in age by the U.S. Naval Academy U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut, and the Air Force Academy U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. Of these, the Coast Guard Coast Guard, U.S. had already decided to admit women and so was exempt from the bill. The Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, is not an armed service school, as it is operated by the Department of Transportation, but it too had admitted women voluntarily. In many ways the experience of the Merchant Marine Academy Merchant Marine Academy paved the way for the armed services. Fifteen women entered Kings Point in 1974 and ten completed the first year, taking the same classes and participating in the same physical activities as the men. The dropout rate in that class was the lowest in the history of the school. One school spokesperson expressed the theory that the male students were reluctant to quit while women were “sticking it out.”

Despite this positive model, there was a considerable amount of resistance to change on the part of some members of the military and from some women. The secretary of the Navy, J. William Middendorf, Middendorf, J. William expressed a determination not to accept women at Annapolis voluntarily. He indicated that acceptance of the Equal Rights Amendment Equal Rights Amendment would change that policy but that he was opposed to any “unilateral” action. General William Westmoreland, Westmoreland, William former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, was more blunt in his views. During a Memorial Day celebration in Middletown, Ohio, the general said it would be “silly” to permit women to enroll at West Point:

It’s depriving young men of the limited places that are there. . . . The purpose of West Point is to train combat officers and women are not physically able to lead in combat. . . . Maybe you could find one woman in ten thousand who could lead in combat, but she would be a freak and we’re not running the military academy for freaks. . . . I don’t believe women can carry a pack, live in a foxhole or go a week without taking a bath.

Former commandant of West Point General Maxwell Taylor Taylor, Maxwell agreed with those sentiments by commenting on the limited space available in the schools and saying that a woman enrolled might take up the place of “another Grant or Lee, Pershing or MacArthur.”

A letter from a woman published in The New York Times expressed the opinion that the “great colleges and universities” of the United States had diluted their moral and educational standards when they became coeducational. She feared the same would happen at the service academies. These views were challenged by other writers to the newspaper who saw such views as nothing more than traditional prejudices based on sex-role stereotypes. As one writer pointed out, the military leadership needed change, as the current group of leaders had produced only stalemates in Korea and Vietnam.

Debate in the Congress mirrored discussion in the society at large. The debate over Representative Stratton’s amendment was especially raucous in the House of Representatives. One member of the House even raised the specter of female combat officers leaving their troops under fire so they could go to the rear to breast-feed babies. In the end, however, the House on May 21, 1975, voted 303 to 96 to allow women into the service academies. A few days later the Senate, with much less debate, unanimously passed the amendment sponsored by Senator Hathaway. President Gerald R. Ford signed the bill into law on October 8, 1975.

In 1975, a woman at West Point models one of the uniforms that would be available for female cadets admitted to the military academy the following year.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The major adjustment to be made at the academies was in their view that they existed to train combat leaders. Commander Robert Lewis Lewis, Robert of the Naval Academy feared that a two-track curriculum would have to be developed, one for combat and one for noncombat commanders. Colonel Nancy Hopfenspirger, Hopfenspirger, Nancy the highest-ranking woman Army officer, agreed, saying she also viewed Army officers as leading combat troops. These arguments were undercut by the curricula of the academies, which emphasized not strategy and tactics but math, science, and engineering. The views of many were summed up by an exchange between an unnamed West Point cadet and Carol Barkalow, Barkalow, Carol a member of the first West Point class to include women. At lunch during her preenrollment visit, a male cadet asked, “Excuse me, Miss, but why do you want to come here?” She replied, “Because I want to be the best Army officer I can be.” He answered, “That’s fine, but couldn’t you do it someplace else?”

The first female cadets at all the academies began to enroll in the summer of 1976. They knew the eyes of the nation were on them. Sonya Nitibuls, Nitibuls, Sonya one of the top high school female athletes in the United States, said of her enrollment at West Point, “If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything.” Donna Smart Smart, Donna may have voiced what many of these first female cadets in all the academies were thinking when she observed that one could either follow an established path or one could blaze a new trail.

At the service academies, certain physical changes had to be made. Toilet facilities had to be provided and other arrangements made to assure a degree of privacy. New uniforms had to be designed, especially formal dress uniforms. Since women would be sharing the same barracks as men, both sexes were required to wear robes to and from their separate bathrooms. Also, the women would be taught karate instead of boxing and would be issued modified rifles that were slightly shorter and lighter. A few of the physical drills would be modified to compensate for the lower upper-body strength of the women. The major factor at all the academies was the requirement, established by law, that women not be assigned to combat roles. This meant that certain kinds of training, such as for fighter pilots at the Air Force Academy, would not be offered to women.


Of all the service academies, the Air Force was the most enthusiastic about the presence of women. It was the only academy to recruit women and the only one to assign female officers to special duty at the academy. Thirteen special air training officers, all first and second lieutenants, were assigned to act as guidance counselors and role models for the female cadets. Despite this degree of preparation, there was some complaining that the basic training session had been weakened to accommodate women cadets, although the academy commander denied this was the case.

The female cadets faced similar first-year experiences. There was some overt harassment from male cadets who resented their presence and who believed women had no place in the armed forces. Naturally, some problems of a sexual nature arose. The Naval Academy policy called for any cadet “responsible for a pregnancy” to resign. If a female cadet became pregnant the “responsibility” was obvious. At the Merchant Marine Academy a male and female cadet were found together in bed. The female was expelled, but the male was allowed to graduate. The Air Force Academy, the most accepting of women of all the academies, ruled that a cadet who became pregnant could take “excess leave” until after the child was born and then return to class to catch up on her work.

The women’s dropout rate was about the same as or lower than that for men. Women won some West Point cadet leadership positions, and at Annapolis, Midshipman Stephanie McManus McManus, Stephanie was chosen to carry the flag for the honor company at graduation. The first women graduated from the academies in 1980. Women in Armed Services Academies Act (1975)
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
Women;U.S. military

Further Reading

  • Ambrose, Stephen E., and James A. Barber, Jr. The Military and American Society. New York: Free Press, 1972. Shows how a gap opened between the military and many segments of society during the decade of the Vietnam War. The authors advocate the admission of women to the service academies as a part of a “change in tradition” to heal this split.
  • Barkalow, Carol. In the Men’s House: An Inside Account of Life in the Army by One of West Point’s First Female Graduates. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990. Personal account by one of the women who entered West Point in 1976. Details her experiences there, experiences shared by many of the first female cadets in the service academies. Also traces her subsequent military career, showing how the armed forces continued to evolve in relation to the roles played by women.
  • Galloway, K. Bruce, and Robert Bowie Johnson. West Point: America’s Power Fraternity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. If there were ever any questions as to why women would want to attend the military service academies, this book answers them. Written by a Vietnam veteran in cooperation with a West Point graduate, this book details how West Point graduates are found in influential positions not only in the military but also in most areas of American industrial and commercial life.
  • Janda, Lance. Stronger than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. A military historian tells the story of the first female cadets at West Point.
  • Janowitz, Morris, and Stephen D. Wesbrook. The Political Education of Soldiers. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983. One of the persistent fears of the general public in the United States has been that a professional military would abandon democratic ideals to establish some kind of dictatorship. This book addresses those fears by showing the emphasis placed on citizenship training in the U.S. armed forces as contrasted with that of many other nations.
  • Millis, Walter. American Military Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966. Historical survey of ideas, issues, and positions that led to the development of the modern U.S. armed forces. Shows the evolving national attitude toward the military from the colonial period to the late twentieth century.

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