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“Why be behind when you could be in front?” an unnamed woman, newly promoted to Army private, asked the Army Times’ Meghann Myers in 2017. She was one of the first women to join the U.S. Army’s infantry, undergoing grueling training along with male recruits and preparing for the realities of combat.
Seventy years before, the thought of a woman training for active combat would have been unthinkable. Though women had just served as active members of the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II, they were in the process of leaving the military.
This was the norm after war—only women nurses were allowed to serve in the military during peacetime, and the hundreds of thousands of women who had served their country during World War II were expected to walk away from their military service and rejoin civilian life. But in 1948, that all changed when women took an essential first step toward becoming equal members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Women have always had a role in the United States’ military conflicts, from the prostitutes who followed the Continental Army, to washerwomen and medical caregivers in the Revolutionary War to Civil War nurses who presided over massive hospitals and worked to feed and clothe soldiers. But only during World War I could women who were not nurses enlist in the armed forces during wartime. Though most women still served in a voluntary capacity, a select few were hired by different military branches and put to work in clerical positions.
Then, World War II created an unprecedented need for soldiers—and dramatically changed the military’s non-combat ranks. In an effort to free up men to fight on the front lines, the armed forces recruited women for non-combat positions like linguists, weather forecasters and telephone operators.
At first, the Army only accepted women on an auxiliary, temporary basis through the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). But as the war continued, recruiting became more difficult. “Higher paying jobs in civilian industry, unequal benefits with men, and attitudes within the Army itself—which had existed as an overwhelmingly male institution from the beginning—were factors,” the U.S. Army notes.
In an attempt to stop the bleeding, Congress, urged on by U.S. Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, decided to allow women to actually enlist in the Army of the United States (essentially the reserves). With the creation of the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, in 1943, women could now attain military rank and serve overseas. Meanwhile, the WAAC stayed active, too. Women served in record numbers in both branches, performing their duties with distinction. WACs received the same pay, benefits and rank as their male counterparts; other military branches followed suit with groups like the WAVES (U.S. Navy) and SPARS (U.S. Coast Guard).
But though women served valiantly in the war effort, their work was often stigmatized and mocked. Sexual harassment was common, as were implications that women had traded sexual favors for their military ranks. Rumors that the program was a Nazi plot to undermine the armed forces were common, and some men resented having to serve alongside women.
Women served bravely in World War II, even becoming prisoners of war and receiving medals and citations for their contributions. But once the war ended, they found themselves jobless and unrecognized. Many employers discriminated against women who had served in the military, convinced that their service had involved sexual immorality or nepotism and certain that they would want to subvert gender roles in the workplace.
Those who had stayed in auxiliary roles weren’t considered veterans or given benefits, though they had served in critical roles during the war. And even WACs and WAVES who were given the same veterans’ benefits as men assumed that they’d be kicked out of their roles during peacetime, as had happened after every other war. Women knew that during peacetime, only nurses could serve.
But the toughness and efficiency of the women who served in the U.S. Military during World War II had convinced officials in all branches that it was worth employing women. First, auxiliary members and WACs were provided re-employment rights by Congress in 1946, forcing employers to allow them to return to their prewar jobs. (WAACs wouldn’t be made eligible for Veterans’ Administration services until 1980.)
Then, the U.S. Army—convinced it couldn’t afford to let go of the women who had served with such distinction during war—asked Congress to allow them to make WACs a permanent part of their ranks. In 1948, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law. The act let women serve as full, permanent members of all of the branches of the military.
Women were finally able to serve their country as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during peacetime. But in reality the act severely restricted their service. It limited the number of women who could serve to 2 percent of any military branch, allowed the military to involuntarily discharge women who became pregnant, and it limited the number of women who could become officers. Most significantly, it prevented women from commanding men or ever serving in combat.
“A prime objection [to integrating women into regular service] which we were told was discussed in closed sessions, was that if women were in the regular military, men would have to take orders from a woman. Heaven forbid,”recalled Mary A. Hallaren, who began her career in the U.S. Army as a WAAC and eventually became a Colonel.
It would take decades for the restrictions to change, but women were finally able to participate in the armed forces during peacetime, if unequally. Though discrimination reigned in all branches of the military—at the beginning of the Vietnam War, for example, the Department of Defense authorized nearly 300,000 men they deemed of “low aptitude” to enlist rather than expand women’s roles—women continued to serve bravely and persistently.
Slowly, women’s roles expanded. In 1970, women were finally allowed to rise to command roles in non-combat units, and women and men began training together.
In 2013, women achieved full status in the military when they were granted the right to serve in direct ground combat roles. That milestone then raised the issue of whether women should, like men, be required to register for the draft. In February 2019, a U.S. District judge ruled that requiring all men to register for a military draft, while excluding women, is unconstitutional