women in combat

1915: World War I

The most prominent role for women in the US Army during the First World War was serving in the Army Nurse Corps. Although not recognised as permanent members of the US Army Medical Department until 1901, women had worked as part of medical and nursing teams caring for Union armies during the American Civil War and during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Following the entry of the US into the First World War, more than 20,000 registered nurses were recruited for US military hospitals, working as nurses and staffing ambulance organisations on the Western Front. Bilingual women were also recruited by the army to work as switchboard telephone operators and stenographers in France.

1942-1943: WAACs and WACs

The beginning of the real integration of women into the US military dates back to 1942 when the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established. The WAAC was the women’s auxiliary group of the US Army, and the first 800 members undertook basic training at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Iowa. Women in the corps were initially trained to be switchboard operators, mechanics and bakers.

The unit became a full US Army branch called the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943 and women received the same pay and rank insignia as their male counterparts for the first time. The unit’s scope expanded over time, with women specialising in being drivers, clerk-typists, postal clerks and armourers. In total around 150,000 women served in the WAAC and WAC during the Second World War.

1948: Women’s Armed Services Integration Act

Despite forming a key element of the US Army’s contribution to the Second World War it was not until 1948 that women were allowed, under the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, to serve as permanent regular members of the US Army – rather than only being permitted to serve during times of war – along with the navy, marine corps and air force. The following year, an army regulation came in to force that prohibited female servicewomen with dependent children under the age of 18 from serving – a regulation that remained in place until the 1970s.

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1970s: a time of change

The vast majority of women serving in the army were still members of the WAC rather than the regular army by the 1970s. A number of external factors -the end of the draft, withdrawal of US military troops from Vietnam, and an overwhelmingly negative public attitude toward the military following its campaign in Vietnam – combined to see the Army Reserve’s unit strength fall to an unprecedented low. This prompted a move to assimilate female soldiers from the WAC into the standard army units, with WAC officers detailed to other branches of the army. At the same time, the Civilian Acquired Skills programme was created to assist in the recruitment of specialty-qualified women into vacant positions in Army Reserve units. This programme contributed to the upturn of female soldiers in the command, and the development of the first all-female platoon, the 88th Army Reserve Command.

Women were allowed to be trained in the use of defensive weapons for the first time in 1975, with the first female cadets entering the US Military Academy at West Point in 1976. From 1977 onwards, women began undertaking the same basic training as men, and in 1978 the WAC was officially disbanded with all units integrated with male units and converted into the military occupational specialty they worked in.

women in combat

1990s: Women in combat

As the numbers of women serving in the US Army grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, debate over their evolving role within the armed forces became an increasingly hot topic. In its 1992 ‘Army Policy for the Assignment of Female Soldiers’, the army defined its overall policy for the female soldier as women being allowed to serve "in any office or enlisted specialty or position except in those specialties, positions or units… which are assigned a routine mission to engage in direct combat, or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct combat mission".

The policy was followed up in 1994 with the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which stated: "Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground." Direct ground combat was defined as "engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy’s personnel and a substantial risk of capture".

In a 1998 review, the US Government Accountability Office (GOA) noted that while women comprised roughly 14% of the armed forces, around 221,000 of the DoD’s 1.4 million positions remained closed to women, 101,700 of them because they required engagement in direct ground combat, and others due to their collocation with direct combat units in locales where the cost of providing living arrangements for women was considered prohibitive. At that time the GOA noted that DoD officials had no plans to change the policy because they believed that "the integration of women into direct ground combat units lacked both congressional and public support", and that it "would not contribute to the readiness and effectiveness of those units because of physical strength, stamina, and privacy issues".

2013: Shifting sands

The policy of blocking women from direct combat roles remained in place for more than a decade. The first breakthrough came in 2012, when a series of modifications to the rule opened up more than 14,000 positions to women, including positions that were collocated with ground combat units and certain positions in ground combat units below the battalion level.

In 2013 US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced plans to lift the ban on women serving in combat roles in the US military. Referring to the 200,000+ women serving in the US military – including the 152 women who died serving in Afghanistan and Iraq – he said: "They have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission." In agreement with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women was eliminated and plans to eliminate "all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service" were to be taken forward.

2015: An equal force

Between the 2013 reversal and December 2015 more than 111,000 positions had opened to women in uniform. However, around 10% of positions (nearly 200,000) – including infantry, armour, reconnaissance, and some special operations units – remained closed to women.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced at the end of 2015 that, as of January 2016, all military occupations would be open to women without exception, as it had been determined that there were no positions warranting a continued exemption.
Carter said the decision meant women would now be able to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat, and all other roles that had previously only been open to men. Even more importantly, he said: "The military services will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that talented women have to offer."

About time, too.