The Evolution of an Ideal: Servicewomen and Equality in the U.S. Military

The following is a guest blog post by Tanya L. Roth, author of Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945–1980. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act created permanent military positions for women with the promise of equal pay. Her Cold War follows the experiences of women in the military from the passage of the Act to the early 1980s.

Her Cold War was also featured on our recent Women’s Equality Day Reading List.

Happy Book Birthday to Her Cold War, officially on sale today!

Since the eighteenth century, Americans have endorsed “equality” as a fundamental element of the nation’s identity. Yet while the Declaration of Independence boldly declares the belief that “all men are created equal,” this belief has never been fully realized. For centuries, Americans have fought for and fought over what it means to be equal. How Americans defined “equality” two hundred or fifty years ago is much different than the definitions Americans apply today.

After World War II, members of Congress created a specific definition of equality for women when they agreed that women should be able to serve in the military on an equal basis with men. In the 1940s, “equal” meant offering women the same pay and same ranks that men could hold. A woman private would be paid the same as a male private. But members of Congress also created rank limitations because they did not believe that women would ever be needed as, say, generals or admirals. Nonetheless, allowing women to join the armed forces with equal pay and equal rank (even though limited) was an important step. At a time when equal pay for women was almost unheard of in civilian jobs, the military’s equal pay policies put the institution at the forefront of an important change. No one at the time believed these limits were obstacles to equality. Instead, “equal” meant finding the jobs women could do as well or better than men, capitalizing on what were perceived to be women’s unique abilities. No one imagined that those abilities might include women becoming generals or admirals.

But “equality” is a malleable concept that depends on the circumstances and times in which it is defined. Yesterday’s definition of equality can soon become insufficient, and in the Cold War, servicewomen soon began to protest the government’s version of equality.

During the Cold War servicewomen pushed back and created new definitions of what it would mean for them to be equal in the armed forces. Equal pay was no longer enough by the 1960s, especially when women’s careers were capped due to rank restrictions, or when they became mothers, or when they could not apply for spouse benefits because they could not prove their spouses were dependent on them for at least fifty percent of their support. Servicewomen used all these limitations as evidence to show that they were not, in fact, seen as equal.

Rank limitations disappeared. LImitations on the numbers of women in service evaporated. Leaders begrudgingly agreed that mothers could remain in uniform if they chose. The Supreme Court decreed that it was fundamentally unequal to prevent servicewomen from obtaining spousal benefits.

Even with these gains, the definition of “equality” for servicewomen kept evolving. By the 1970s, leaders began pressing for definitions of “combat” in order to better understand why laws prohibited women from combat roles. Why, they asked, were women excluded from these positions, and what types of jobs fit that classification? Within a few years, the military academies opened to women, too. While some protested that women did not belong at the academies because they prepared graduates for combat leadership – roles not available to women – others recognized that an academy education offered access to important military leadership positions. Without access to that education, advocates argued, women could not be equal partners in defense.

By the 1980s and 1990s, servicewomen were more “equal” than they had ever been before, serving in a wider array of roles than ever. These roles put them closer to combat in military engagements in Latin America and the Middle East, although technically, they still could not serve in combat. In the 1990s, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell meant that gay and lesbian servicemembers would not face automatic discharge for their sexuality, but this “equality” came at a price, forcing gay and lesbian servicemembers to remain in the closet if they wanted to serve.

Today, equality in the armed forces has been further redefined. Gender-based combat restrictions have been removed. Gay and lesbian servicemembers are welcome to serve openlyTransgender Americans may serve, and may remain in the military if they transition while in service. In so many ways, servicewomen have gained a greater share of equality than ever before.

Servicewomen continue to fight for their equality, however, because removing legal restrictions is just one part of the fight for equality. Since the murder of Vanessa Guillen in 2020, military leaders have begun to reassess how they manage military sexual assault and have been criticized for patterns of mismanagement in the past. In September 2021, an Air Force review showed that servicewomen and minorities continue to be treated differently, and servicewomen continue to speak out about problems they encounter during pregnancy and as mothers.

All these concerns demonstrate that servicewomen, like all Americans, are still on a journey to equality. Just as we seem to be able to define it, achieving it remains elusive. 

Tanya L. Roth received her Ph.D. in history from Washington University. She teaches history at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School.