Women’s Military Roles Expand

Expansion of women’s roles in the U.S. military contributed to a broader acceptance of women in traditionally male roles throughout American society.

Summary of Event

Instances of women’s involvement with the U.S. armed forces go back to the Revolutionary War, in which many women worked as nurses and a few even saw combat by disguising themselves as men. Women served in similar roles in the American Civil War. By the early twentieth century, however, women were beginning to serve more integral roles in the U.S. military. In 1941, Edith Nourse Rogers, a member of Congress and a champion of military service by women, introduced a bill to create the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later the Women’s Army Corps Women’s Army Corps[Womens Army Corps] (WAC). The bill passed, and with U.S. entry into World War II, women’s auxiliaries were added to all the branches of the military. Women;U.S. military
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
[kw]Women’s Military Roles Expand (1970’s)
[kw]Military Roles Expand, Women’s (1970’s)
Women;U.S. military
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
[g]North America;1970’s: Women’s Military Roles Expand[00050]
[g]United States;1970’s: Women’s Military Roles Expand[00050]
[c]Women’s issues;1970’s: Women’s Military Roles Expand[00050]
[c]Military history;1970’s: Women’s Military Roles Expand[00050]
Bailey, Mildred Caroon
Brown, Harold
Gates, Thomas S., Jr.
Holm, Jeanne M.
Quigley, Robin L.
Rogers, Edith Nourse
Sustad, Jeanette I.

Secretary of the Army Robert F. Froehlke (left), with the help of Colonel Keith S. Lane, pins stars on Brigadier General Mildred Caroon Bailey, the newly appointed director of the Women’s Army Corps, on August 2, 1971.

(U.S. Army)

Although many women served with distinction during World War II, they were not integrated into the all-male military force. Various stated objections, including women’s presumed physical limitations and emotional dispositions, concerns about fraternization between the sexes, and traditional beliefs that women should be shielded from the business of war and violence, weighed against integration. By and large, the U.S. military remained an all-male preserve. Even the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (1948)[Womens Armed Services Integration Act] in 1948, which provided for the peacetime military service of women within the four branches of the U.S. military, did not lead to significant integration of women within the armed forces. For two decades, the proportion of women in the military did not approach even the 2 percent ceiling imposed by the 1948 act. Various other restrictions on women’s assignments and promotion kept the numbers of women in the military small.

By the beginning of the 1970’s, two developments were converging to promote the fuller integration of women into the military. As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began to wind down, Richard M. Nixon’s Nixon, Richard M. presidential administration was looking for a way to end the military draft Military, U.S.;draft and institute an all-volunteer force (AVF). Responding to Nixon’s request, a Central All-Volunteer Task Force Central All-Volunteer Task Force[Central All Volunteer Task Force] within the U.S. Department of Defense put forward two suggestions for ensuring that enough personnel could be recruited to sustain an AVF: Offer recruits a range of benefits, including higher pay and better working conditions, and make wider use of women for certain noncombat tasks. The government’s desire to expand the recruitment base for an AVF coincided with the expansion of a nationwide campaign for women’s rights, most visibly under the rubric of a proposed Equal Rights Amendment Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The combination of these two developments paved the way for a significant widening of opportunities for women to serve in the military.

Despite the task force’s recommendations and mounting pressure from women’s groups and other organizations, military leaders were slow to pursue increased participation by women in the armed forces. In 1972, a congressional special subcommittee released a report that criticized the Department of Defense for alleged tokenism in the recruitment and promotion of women. This prompted the AVF task force to establish a target of doubling, over five years, the proportion of women in all services except the Marine Corps, U.S. Marine Corps the combat-intensive mission of which presumably justified only a 40 percent increase. The results were promising. By 1977, the combined number of women in the armed forces had surpassed the task force’s targets.

The integration of women into the military in the mid-1970’s was the subject of various official and quasi-official studies. In particular, researchers examined the effects of women’s presence in the military on troop readiness, discipline, morale, and overall effectiveness. By most accounts, the net impact of women was positive. Female recruits tended to be better educated and better disciplined than their male counterparts, and they tended to adapt well to the military environment. Overall, the all-volunteer military, utilizing a significant proportion of women, was judged to be an effective and sustainable force. Various political leaders, including Presidents Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ford, Gerald R. and Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy (all of whom, by virtue of being presidents, were also commanders in chief of the armed forces), supported the integration of women to sustain the AVF.


Women’s integration into the U.S. military in the 1970’s set a broad range of precedents, one of which concerned the integration of women officers. Although women had served as officers in the American military since World War II, their promotion opportunities were severely limited, largely because of the practice of keeping promotion lists segregated by sex. This practice slowed in the 1970’s, and by 1981 it had been entirely eliminated. The early 1970’s saw the first promotions of women to the rank of brigadier general (Elizabeth P. Hoisington, Hoisington, Elizabeth P. WAC director, and Anna Mae Hays, Hays, Anna Mae chief of the Army Nurse Corps).

Women also became integrated into all Reserve Officers Training Corps Reserve Officers’ Training Corps[Reserve Officers Training Corps] (ROTC) programs by the end of the decade, and in 1976, the U.S. Congress required that the service academies be integrated. Women began to receive weapons training, and gender-based affirmative action programs helped increase the proportion of women in traditionally male roles in the military, such as helicopter piloting.

Despite these advances, opposition to the full integration of women remained within the military branches and within parts of the civilian population. In a 1976 report, the Army U.S. Army;integration of women claimed that the use of large numbers of women was not economical, because women lost time as a result of pregnancy, child-care needs, and other factors. However, the exclusion of women on such grounds could not be justified by the military branches’ experience and research data.

The main concern regarding women in the military gradually shifted to the issue of combat assignments. Although by the mid-1970’s few questioned whether women could fill various administrative and support positions, there remained a pervasive sense that women should be excluded from combat roles. Such views rested on two arguments: first, that women were incapable, physically or otherwise, of battlefield combat; and second, that it was morally wrong to subject women, as potential mothers and the “weaker” sex, to the dangers and horrors of battle. Significant numbers of men and women, civilian and military, shared these beliefs.

By the end of the twentieth century, the legacy of the 1970’s integration of women into the U.S. military was strongly in evidence: Women made up about 10 percent of the military, from the enlisted ranks to generals commanding major military installations. Nevertheless, continued restrictions on women in combat positions, instances of sexual harassment such as occurred at the 1991 Tailhook Tailhook scandal convention, and the still-low proportion of women in relation to their numbers in American society suggested that significant obstacles still stood in the way of women’s full participation in the U.S. military. Women;U.S. military
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]

Further Reading

  • Binkin, Martin, and Shirley J. Bach. Women and the Military. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1977. Argues that gender restrictions in the military unfairly deny access for women and unnecessarily weaken the pool of qualified recruits. Makes a strong case on the basis of economics. Includes appendix that assesses experiences of countries with integrated militaries.
  • Blacksmith, E. A., ed. Women in the Military. New York: Wilson, 1992. Presents a variety of viewpoints on the integration of women in the military. Focuses primarily on the question of women in combat. Includes bibliography.
  • D’Amico, Francine, and Laurie Weinstein, eds. Gender Camouflage: Women and the U.S. Military. New York: New York University Press, 1999. Collection of essays presents discussion of many aspects of women’s experiences in the American military. Features autobiographical contributions by women who served in the armed forces. Includes photographs, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Rev. ed. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992. Provides a thorough account of the integration of women into the U.S. military, from the founding of the country through the Persian Gulf War (1991). Includes bibliography and appendixes.
  • Mitchell, Brian. Women in the Military: Flirting with Disaster. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1998. Presents a negative appraisal of women’s accomplishments and place in the American military. Includes index.
  • Stiehm, Judith Hicks. Bring Me Men and Women: Mandated Change at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. An assessment of the changes that resulted from the requirement that women be admitted to the national service academies, with a focus on the Air Force.
  • _______, ed. It’s Our Military, Too! Women and the U.S. Military. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Collection of personal accounts and commentaries by women who have served in the American military or have worked in the armed forces as civilians. Includes index.

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