Veteran's Corner

Celebrating Women in the Military

Combat Marksmanship (Photo: Matthew Hintz)

Alexandria, VA – March is Women’s History Month, which is important because it highlights the achievements of women past and present who helped build and shape this country. This year’s theme – Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion – recognizes women who speak up and lead change in their fields, creating opportunities for others. Who better exemplifies this theme than our women service members and veterans?

Today, there are over 350,000 active servicewomen and 2 million female veterans in the United States, the highest number in history. While only 17.8% of active-duty service members are female, the number has risen dramatically since the beginning of the all-volunteer force, even as the size of the military has steadily declined. Every one of these women has contributed her part in making our armed forces the world-class military it is today, and we honor each of them for their service.

While women continue to make great strides and achieve many military “firsts,” it hasn’t been easy. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 granted women the right to serve as permanent, regular members of the military services. Even so, many career fields were closed to women, particularly those considered combat roles.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation estimates that while approximately 11,000 military women were stationed in Vietnam during the conflict, nearly all were volunteers who served primarily as nurses. Others worked as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, and clerks, among other non-combat positions.

In 1990 and 1991, some 40,000 American military women were deployed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. None officially served in combat.

Allowing women in combat was a heated topic of debate in Congress and among military leaders and the public for many years. Those opposed argued that women cannot reach the same physical fitness levels as their male counterparts. Others contended that integration would compromise discipline and morale. Either the males would become less effective by being protective of female counterparts, or women in combat units would cause sexual tension that might erode unit cohesion, the so-called “Eros” argument. And what parent wanted to see their daughter on the frontlines?

Supporters of integration stressed that judging women by fitness standards set for men is an unfair metric. Designing gender-neutral fitness tests that would not weaken the standards could eliminate all arbitrary gender biases without sacrificing military quality.

Interestingly, a case study of Russian female military units in World War II, published in the Georgetown Public Policy Review in 2020, found that the presence of women and men in the field had a positive effect on morale. In one report, when an all-female battalion led a charge across an area designated as “no man’s land,” it inspired the male soldiers to follow.

As in all things government, things change, but slowly.

Physical Fitness Training (Photo: Matthew Hintz)

A 1994 Department of Defense (DoD) policy specified that women were prohibited from assignment to ground combat units below the brigade level. In other words, they could be assigned to combat roles other than direct ground combat. That year, President Clinton asked DoD to update mobilization requirements for the Selective Service System. Part of the effort was to review the arguments for and against continuing to exclude women from Selective Service registration.

In its report, the DoD maintained that the 1994 policy restriction justified exempting women from registration and a draft. (They still are, but it continues under review.) However, it recognized the vastly increased role women were playing in the Armed Services, concluding that the success of the military will increasingly depend on the participation of women.

Then, in January 2013, following a unanimous recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members. All positions are now open to women. But under the Pentagon’s cautious, phased approach, it wasn’t until 2016 that DoD lifted all gender-based restrictions. Women were finally eligible for every combat job, including in infantry, armor, reconnaissance, and some special operations units.

Following the exemplary service of military women in WWII, military leaders began to endorse making women full and permanent US armed forces members. At one hearing, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee questioned why women should serve in our military on the same basis as men. The first witness to respond was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He replied simply, “We need them.” ‘Nuff said!


If you are a veteran, a veteran’s family member, or know a veteran who needs help, go to Virginia Board Veterans Services at;; contact American Legion Post 24 Veteran Service Officer at [email protected]; or check out the Resources List on the Post 24 website: For crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, dial 988 and Press 1, or text 838255 for the Veterans Crisis Line.

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