Military Service

September 17, 2011

In 2001, there were 1,385,116 active duty members of the United States military, down from 1,610,490 in 1994. In 2001 there were 207,188 women service members, roughly 15% of the total force, up from 199,688 in 1994. Compared to 1994, the total number of active duty military members fell, while the number of women service members rose by about 2.5%.

Until 1948, women could serve as voluntary members of the military. The Army had the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), the Navy had the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Marines had “Semper Paratus, Always Ready” (SPAR). Usually these volunteers served as nurses, clerks, and sometimes even performed communications jobs, but were not considered full members of the armed services.

The Women’s Armed Services Act of 1948 opened the military forces for women to become full members, however limiting their service to noncombat role. Roughly 50% of all military jobs are now open to women. This number varies by branch of service.

In the recent Gulf War, some 540,000 soldiers participated in Operation Desert Storm; of these soldiers, approximately 35,000 were women. The Persian Gulf War was the first major conflict where women saw frontline action. Women were very much in the media spotlight during this war. Media attention and the exceptional performance of female service members during the Gulf War were largely responsible for the changing attitudes and subsequent opening of many previously prohibited jobs to women. Combat exclusion laws have been repealed, however, there are still a number of military occupations closed to women. Among those closed to women are: infantry, armor, field artillery, and special forces in the Army; submarine, SEAL (special forces units), and mining/antimining positions in the Navy; infantry, artillery, armored units, reconnaissance, and combat engineer units in the Marine Corps; and finally, parachute-rescue and combat controllers in the Air Force.

A few of the reasons that opponents of women in combat roles offer for exclusion are: physical differences, reproductive issues, that men would be unable to fight because they would be too concerned with protecting female members, and the potential rape by enemy forces if captured. As military equipment and jobs become more technical and hand-to-hand combat in war decreases, many of these arguments fall by the wayside.

The year 1994 saw an enormous surge of female firsts for the military. In 1994, 1st Lt. Jeanne Flynn became the first Air Force combat jet pilot; Lt. Shannon Workman became the first female Navy pilot to qualify on an aircraft carrier, and 1st Lt. Sarah Deal became the first Marine Corps combat pilot. Also in 1994, the Navy allowed two female pilots to fly combat missions for the first time.

Another area of military service to be opened to women, during the 1990s, came after the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a seven-to-one decision, that the prestigious Virginia Military Institute (VMI) would have to either accept women or go private. VMI’s answer was to create the Virginia Women’s Military Institute (VWMI). Shortly thereafter, another military academy, the Citadel, admitted their first woman student, Shannon Faulkner.

The United States military has progressed far in the area of women’s equality; while not quite there yet, the military continues to progress toward equality.

SEE ALSO: Women in the Workforce (pp. 32-40), Sexual harassment

Suggested Reading

  • Feinman, I. R. (2000). Citizenship rites: Feminist soldiers and feminist antimilitarists. New York: New York University Press.
  • Gutmann, S. (2000). The kinder, gentler military: Can America’s gender-neutral fighting force still win wars? New York: Scribner’s.
  • Mace, N. (2001). In the company of men: A woman at the Citadel. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Patterson, M. (2001). A woman’s guide to the Army from a survivor. Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance.
  • Weinstein, L., & White, C. C. (Eds.). (1997). Wives and warriors: Women in the military in the United States and Canada. London: Bergin & Garvey.


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