The presence of women in the U.S. armed forces remains controversial and complicated more than 80 years after the WACS and WAVES were formed in World War II. The WACS were members of the Women’s Army Corps and the WAVES were Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the Navy. These acronyms have disappeared while women are integrated fully into all services, including the Air Force and Marines as well as the Army and Navy.
The fact that more than 200,000 women are now on active duty in the armed forces, however, does not mean they’re fully appreciated. The military establishment faces serious problems in guaranteeing their rights as well as safety in a male-dominated structure. Signs on U.S. military bases advertise offices dealing specifically with harassment, which women can and do report.
Among the most provocative issues is whether women should be risking their lives under enemy fire. “Female service members have gained a small but important share of the combat arms population in the military,” says an article by Andrew Swick and Emma Moore for New American Security in Washington. Nonetheless, they write, “The military services face an uphill battle to recruit women who are interested and capable of serving in combat roles, while still maintaining physical standards.”
Perhaps because ground combat is so daunting, the Air Force and Navy attract a higher percentage of women than the Army or the Marine Corps. About 20 percent of those two services, far removed from the grit and grime of battling on land, are women. The Army claims 15 percent of its soldiers are women, nearly double the Marine Corps’ 8 percent female participation.
The top leadership of the armed forces is trying to figure out how to absorb women into military life. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, under the secretary of defense, makes recommendations reflecting “how the increase in women in our Armed Forces is necessitating changes to an array of policies and program,” writes Jennifer Rea for the Military Families Learning Network.
One way to keep women from leaving the services when their initial enlistment is done, says the committee, has been to extend leave time for women and men with newborns. Women now have 12 weeks’ maternity leave while men in the Army and Air Force get three weeks paternity leave, up from 10 days. The committee complains, however, that the Navy and Marine Corps still give only two weeks leave to new fathers.
Most importantly, the armed forces still have much to do about sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports nearly one-fourth of women in the military “reported sexual assault” while more than half “reported some form of sexual harassment.”
Those are disturbing numbers. Moreover, says a report by the RAND Corporation, sexual harassment can be “a gateway to more serious transgressions,” including not only physical abuse but discrimination.
To combat the problem, the advisory committee recommends “a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of the Military Services’ policies, standards, training, and enforcement to eliminate gender discrimination and sexual harassment.”
In the meantime, Micah Ables, who served in Afghanistan, cites the successful integration of women into the armed forces in the context of other changes that came to be accepted after many years of controversy.
“It took the U.S. infantry 55 years and thousands of deaths to abandon the idea of trench warfare,” Ables writes for the Modern War Institute at West Point. “It took the U.S. cavalry 25 years to accept that armored tanks were better than horses against a machine gun.”
Similarly, Ables writes, the idea of women serving in combat “is no exception.”
Elizabeth Trobaugh, who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan, sees women as absolutely needed in the modern armed forces. “The war on terror and the U.S. military’s use of counterinsurgency ushered in a new era of warfighting” she writes in Joint Forces, arguing “there are no frontlines and everyone must be prepared to fight.”
Trobaugh, now a captain in the Army Reserve, blames “the current combat arms culture” for having been “slow to adjust as evidenced by the ongoing commentary about what women can and cannot do in the military.”
General Robert B. Neller, Marine Corps commandant, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee got right to the point: “We can no longer go to war without women.”