Yesterday we celebrated Memorial Day -- a day of remembrance for those who have died in military service. When we think about military service, we may often conjure up the image of a “military man” who is part of a “Band of Brothers”. In our images of war women have traditionally been regulated to nurses in field hospitals, government workers, or ‘taking care of the home front’ in our collective memory. While these were essential roles women perform save lives and provide critical services and jobs at home and abroad, women have also made significant contributions in combat historically and in our current wars.
Women have a long history of serving in many combat jobs in the US military. Some highlights include---during the Revolutionary War while women served as nurses, cooks, and laundresses, they were also spies and combat soldiers in disguise. In 1775, Sarah Shattuck, Prudence Wright and other women of Groton, MA, put on their husbands' clothing, and armed themselves to defend the Nashua River Bridge.
In the Civil War both the Union and Confederate armies prohibited women from enlisting. However women did enlist and, often did so, by disguising themselves as men. While we don’t have an official count of the number of women who served in combat during the Civil War, estimates suggest close to 400 women did.
During World War I regular Army and Navy military nurses served overseas, yet they often did so without being given an official rank. During World War II, the need for workers both in the military and on the home front, led to the dismantling of gendered assumptions of work and occupations, and women played pivotal and non-traditional roles. With the help of women workers, total industrial production doubled between 1939 and 1945; over 300,000 aircraft, 12,000 ships, 86,000 tanks, and 64,000 landing craft and millions of artillery pieces and small weapons were produced in American manufacturing. Women also served as spies, strategic analysts and code breakers. In the combat zones of WW II women served and died for the war effort. And 90 women were held as prisoners during the war.
Women’s participation in military service continues to grow. More than 260,000 women have served in Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn, and more than 25,000 are serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan today. Not only do they serve, they have lost their lives in this service. As of last month 137 women have died in both wars; with 60 women dying in combat. And, of course, women serve on active duty outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently 14.5 percent of the active duty military members are women; close to 20 percent of the reserve military, and 15 percent of the National Guard.
So women are pivotal to our military service, and they are on the front line; despite official military policy that bans women from units that are in direct combat missions. Recently, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) introduced an amendment “Women’s Fair and Equal Right to Military Service Act” to the 2012 defense authorization bill, to officially recognize women on the front line. This amendment would repeal the policy that prevents women from serving on the front lines. This amendment is quite important, as this existing policy serves as a barrier to women’s advancement in the military, impacts women’s access to benefits, and, simply, does not represent the reality of women in the military.
The military is one of the most powerful areas of gender segregation in our labor market. As we remember those who have bravely served in combat, let us commit to ensure that our military policies and programs that impact women reflect the full realities of the service they perform. In doing so, we will be taking one important step toward providing real recognition and equity for our servicewomen.
Mary Gatta, Ph. D.
Wider Opportunities for Women