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Women Veterans: Past, Present and Future

Office of Policy and Planning

Women Veterans: Past, Present, and Future

Revised and Updated September 2007


Women are a vital part of the armed forces and the community of veterans. The study of women veterans begins with the history of women in the military and the changing role of women in the military.

Women in the Military: A Historical Perspective in Brief

Women have served valiantly in America’s wars and conflicts throughout our history. And although women were not formally under military command until the early part of the 20th century, they have served in various capacities, beginning with America’s War of Independence.

During the American Revolution, it was not uncommon for wives, mothers, and daughters to follow their male loved ones into battle. While they tended to their men, they were often given rations in exchange for service to the troops, mostly tending to the wounded and serving as cooks, seamstresses, and launderers. Some women distinguished themselves on the battlefield for the Continental Army. For example, Margaret Corbin and Mary McCauley, who was a heroine in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and thought to be the model for the legendary Molly Pitcher, fought in the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776 (Holm, pp.3-4). Later during the Civil War, at least 400 women on both sides of the conflict disguised themselves as men and assumed combat roles alongside men. Women in surprisingly large numbers served in other unconventional roles as well, acting as spies, saboteurs, and couriers as well as taking an active part in the execution of the war. Most women who served, however, assumed conventional civilian roles as cooks, caregivers, and nurses (Holm, p. 6).

The institutionalization of the nursing corps as an auxiliary of the Army, which started during the Spanish-American War in 1901 (Thomas, p. 3) by an act of 3 Congress, is generally recognized as the event that established women as a formal part of the military. In 1908, the Navy followed suit and established its own nursing corps. By the end of WW I, about 34,000 women served as nurses in all of the armed forces, which included by then nurses in the Marines and Coast Guard as well as in the Army and Navy. However, it is generally acknowledged that the nursing corps was still effectively given only marginal status, since military women still had no military rank or were not given the benefits provided to men in the military and to male veterans (Holm, p. 9).

In spite of the secondary status of women in the military at the time, WW I seems to have been a turning point in the history of women in the military. The significant role of nurses and women serving in other roles during WW I firmly established the importance of women to the armed forces.

Changes in the civilian work force after WW I, which saw an increasing number of women in clerical positions, also had a profound impact on the military. Women filled such roles, thus expanding the kinds of work women did in the military—that is, from work almost exclusively in nursing, to other jobs as well (Holm, p. 11), particularly during WW II.

If WW I was a turning point for women in the military, WW II was the time when women served in relatively large numbers, responding to an all-out mobilization because of a desperate need for personnel. Acceptance of these women was not always given willingly, both in Congress and within the military itself. At the end of the war, nearly 280,000 women were serving out of 12 million in the armed forces. In all, roughly 350,000 women served in the military during the course of the war (Holm, p. 100). At the end of fiscal year 2006, there were an estimated 149,000 living women veterans of WW II (Office of the Actuary, December 2004).

It was during WW II when women were first given full military status with the establishment of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) by Congress in 1943. The WAC was headed by Oveta Culp Hobby of Texas, who later became the second woman to serve as a cabinet secretary (after Labor Secretary Francis Perkins in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration). She served as secretary under 4 President Eisenhower of what is now the Department of Health and Human Services. The WAC, its predecessor, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) (established in 1942), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (known as SPARS, Semper Paratus-Always Ready) (established in 1942), and the WASPS (Women Air Force Service Pilots, made up of civil service pilots) all contributed immensely in various ways to the war effort.

In spite of the contributions of women during WW II, there was a feeling in some circles, including Congress, that the role of women in the military should be reduced in a post-WW II world and that a general de-mobilization should occur. Indeed, many women did leave the military, as did many men. However, one who was not of the view that women as a group should be demobilized was General Eisenhower, who was Army Chief of Staff at the time. Eisenhower was a strong advocate of legislation passed in 1947 making the WAC part of the regular Army and Reserve (Holm, p. 105). In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, making women permanent members of the Regular and Reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Marines and the newlycreated Air Force (Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, p.2). A year later, the Air Force Nurse Corps was recognized as a separate branch of the Air Force. Another milestone, Truman’s Executive Order 9981, ended racial segregation in the armed forces in 1948.

Sentiments of retrenchment and isolation immediately after WW II were shortlived in light of the ascendance of the Soviet Union and the challenge it and its global allies presented. The Korean Conflict was the first immediate post-WW II manifestation of that challenge and women played an active role in the engagement.

At the time the war broke out in 1950, there were about 22,000 women in the armed forces, with roughly one-third in nursing or health-related jobs. Over the next year, efforts to increase the number of active duty military nurses 5 succeeded, particularly by activating many military nurses in the reserves who had served during WW II (Holm, pp. 149-150). At its peak, the number of women in the armed forces during the Korean Conflict was 48,700, declining to about 35,000 by war’s end in June 1955 (Holm, p. 157).

During the Korean Conflict (in 1951), the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) was established by thenSecretary of Defense, George C. Marshall, to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of professional women in the Armed Forces. DACOWITS exists to this day, continuing to make recommendations on family issues related to recruitment and retention of women in the military. Historically, the civilian appointees to DACOWITS have been very instrumental in recommending changes to laws and policies beneficial to military women (Trowell-Harris, 2005).

During the Korean Conflict, there were ambitious goals by the military to increase by several-fold the proportion of women in each of the services. The overall goal was to mobilize one-half million to one-million women to join. In spite of active recruiting and other efforts, the military fell far short of its goals (Holm, p. 157). The next big push to increase the number of women in the military came in 1968 during the Vietnam War. The Department of Defense had a goal of adding 6,500 women to the military (Holm, p. 187), thus trying to reverse a downward trend after the Korean Conflict. Nearly 7,000 women served in the military in the Southeast Asia theater of operations. Most of those who served there were nurses (Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, p. 4). However, the military opened up many other positions to women as a result not only of personnel shortages, even in an era of conscription, but also as a reflection of general societal changes in the role of women.

The Vietnam era was a time of considerable social ferment and unrest, with many groups demanding and gaining equal status in society, including women. Indeed, the passage of P.L. 90-130 in 1967 was meant, in large part, to remove 6 statutorily any obstacles to women becoming high ranking military officers. In 1970, Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays, head of the Army Nurse Corps, became the first woman to attain star rank in nursing. By 1972, Rear Admiral Alene B. Duerk, head of the Navy Nurse Corps, became the first woman admiral (Holm, p. 203) and also in 1972, E. Ann Hoefly became Brigadier General in the Air Force Nurse Corps.

The 1970’s also saw the appointment of women to star rank who were not nurses: Army Brigadier General Elizabeth P. Hoisington (1970); Air Force Brigadier General Jeanne M. Holm (1971); Navy Rear Admiral Fran McKee (1976); and Marine Brigadier General Margaret A. Brewer (1978) (Moseley Brown, 2005). Gains made by women in the military continued through the 1970’s. The trend of gains remains, with fewer restrictions on women. Although rules affirmed in 1994 by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin exempt women from assignments in small direct ground combat units or from collocating with such units, the rules also lifted long-standing bans on women serving in other combatrelated roles (The Washington Times, 2004) as a direct result of their performance during the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. Beginning in the early 1990s, women flew combat aircraft, manned missile placements, served on ships in the Gulf, drove convoys in the desert, and assumed other roles making exposure to combat more likely. In the 2001 National Survey of Veterans, 12 percent of women veterans reported having served in a combat or war zone. Nearly one-quarter reported contact with dead, dying or wounded compatriots during their military service (Office of Policy, Planning, and Preparedness, April 2003, Table 2-8, p. 52). The army’s newly-created Combat Action Badge will honor any eligible soldier exposed to perilous combat conditions, affecting thousands of soldiers not in infantry ranks, including many women (Department of Defense, ARNEWS, 2005; The Washington Post, 2005).

Some mark the beginning of the trend toward greater gender equality in the military with the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, when occupational roles within the military opened up considerably for women because 7 of the need to fill those positions with a volunteer force. That is, personnel demands could not be met with a force of male volunteers alone. Data show that the AVF marked a sharp increase in the absolute number of women in the military and an increase in the proportion of women in the military as well. In spite of difficulties in retaining women in the military shortly after the establishment of the AVF, steps were taken to make the military more “family friendly” to encourage women to enter service and to remain there as well. Arguably, more needs to be done. But the numbers reflect, in some measure, those steps. In 1973, for example, 55,000 women were in the active duty military, making up 2.5 percent of the armed forces (Department of Defense, 2003, Tables D-19 and D- 29). By September 30, 2005, however, the number of women on active duty nearly quadrupled to more than 202,000, making up nearly 14 percent of the active duty armed forces (Department of Defense, 2005).

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