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Sexual Harassment in the
  US Military

  (from the Nov. 2000 issue of
  Y&M Magazine)
US Military in Okinawa
  (from the Oct. 2000 issue
  of Y&M Magazine)
Vietnam War and women
(from the Dec. 1999 issue of
  Y&M Magazine)

Other Issues:
Alternatives to the Military
Gays and Lesbians & the Military
People of Color & the Military
Recruitment and Enlistment

... and more

Facts about Women
in the US Military

from the December 1999 issue of Y&M Magazine
The Army established the Army Nurse Corps, allowing women to be officially part of the military for the first time, although the women had no military rank, equal pay, or benefits. The Navy created the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. Full military status was not granted to these women until 1944.


World War I:
In 1917, women were authorized to enroll in the Naval Reserve, just in time for US entry into World War I. The Marines did the same. At the end of the war, these women were demobilized. ·
World War II:
The US armed forces actively recruited women for a variety of non-combat assignments in special women’s divisions. These women were not necessarily entitled to the same benefits as their male counterparts. For instance, members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) were not guaranteed the same pay, rank, or other entitlements when the WAAC began in May 1942.
The passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women other than nurses to serve in the armed forces in peacetime and allowed for limited numbers of women officers. But women could constitute no more than 2% of the total military force.
The 2% ceiling was removed.
The draft ended and the Armed Forces became an all-volunteer force.
Women were allowed to enter the service academies.
Tens of thousands of positions were opened to women, mostly in the Army and Marine Corps. The Secretary of Defense established a new direct combat definition and assignment rule. Women were allowed to serve in combat aircraft and on combat ships.


  • Composition of forces: Since 1972, the number of enlisted women has grown eightfold while the number of women officers has more than tripled. As of May 1999, more than 190,000 women were in uniform, comprising 14% of the active duty force, up from less than 2% in 1973.

    Women as a percentage of military members in 1999:
    • Army: 15%
    • Navy: 13%
    • Marine Corps: 5%
    • Air Force: 18%

  • Recruitment: Women account for 20% of new recruits. ·

  • Attrition (leaving the military during their first term): Women leave the military early at a higher percentage rate than men: 47% of the Army’s enlisted women are gone before the end of three years, despite having signed up for terms averaging four years (men’s rate is 28%). These rates are highest for white women and lowest for Asian/Pacific Islander and Black women. While two of the top three reasons for leaving are the same for men and women, men also leave because of misconduct while women leave because of pregnancy.

  • Black women: Nearly 32% of the women in the military are Black. The Army has particularly high percentages of Black women: 47% of enlisted women. A 1999 report, "Career Progression of Minority and Women Officers," found that Black women (and men) were being promoted at a much lower rate than their white counterparts.

  • Rank: Women’s seniority in the military is growing. Until 1988, less than 2% of colonels and captains were women; by the late 1990s, this figure was between 6 and 8% for the Army, Navy, and Air Force while remaining the same for the Marines.

  • Job distribution: Enlisted women serve in a wider range of positions than in previous decades: they now deploy aboard combat ships and planes and serve in peacekeeping missions. As of September 1999, 90% of the military’s occupations (and 80% of the positions) were open to women.

    By service branch (1998 figures):
    • Army: 91% of occupations open to women (70% of positions)
    • Navy: 96% of occupations open to women (94% of positions)
    • Marine Corps: 93% of occupations open to women (62% of positions)
    • Air Force: 99% of occupations open to women (99% of positions)

    Overrepresentation: Women continue to be over-represented (compared to men) in health care, supply, personnel, and support/administrative roles, both as officers and enlistees. In 1998, over 40% of female officers were in health care occupations.

  • Closed to women: Major areas closed to women include infantry, armor, special forces, close ground combat, and submarine warfare.

  • Barriers: Despite the fact that most occupations are open to women, there are still barriers which preclude women. First, entire units are still closed to women even though they contain positions that are open to women. Government officials cite such reasons as privacy and sleeping accommodations on submarines. Second, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB), the test given to all recruits for placement, contains sections based on exposure to a subject rather than aptitude. Women tend to score lower on sections such as automotive systems, which precludes them from certain positions.

  • Sexual harassment: Recent public attention about sexual harassment in the military (e.g., the Tailhook and Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds incidents) has shown that sexual harassment is widespread, ranging from suggestive looks and gestures to rape. The 1995 Armed Forces Sexual Harassment Survey found that 59% of the female respondents had been sexually harassed within the past year, either individually or through the military environment. The most common types of sexual harassment were sexual teasing/jokes, suggestive looks/gestures, and sexual touching/cornering.

  • Veterans: Nearly 1.5 million women veterans were living in the US in 1998, making up 5% of the veteran population.


Costello, Cynthia B., Shari Miles, and Anne J. Stone, eds. The American Woman 1999-2000: A Century of Change–What’s Next? New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982.

Richter, Paul. "Armed Forces, increasingly dependent on women, find them leaving at rates much higher than men." Los Angeles Times, 11/29/99.

United States General Accounting Office. Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate: Gender Issues: Trends in the Occupational Distribution of Military Women, September 1999.

Women’s Research and Education Institute. Women in the Military: Where They Stand, 2nd edition (with May 1999 supplement). January 1998.

Compiled by Shannon McManimon, staff, AFSC National Youth and Militarism Program.

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