2023. A year of celebrations for service women. 75 years since the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was enacted. 50 years since the Navy allowed women to fly Navy aircraft. Ten years since all military jobs were opened to women.
Yet women still face a far different reality when serving than men. The Department of Defense has not achieved true integration but has merely accommodated service women’s existence in its ranks.
Just look at how many entities the Pentagon has established to “monitor” the integration of women: the Navy’s Office of Women’s Policy, the Coast Guard’s Advisory Board on Women in the Coast Guard, the Army Women’s Initiatives Team, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, the Secretary of Defense Women in the Service Working Group, and the list goes on.
It wasn’t supposed to take this long.
In 1948, the military was directed to integrate women into the services — a late-breaking acknowledgement of the ranks of women who contributed throughout World War II, like the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, who ferried aircraft from factories to military bases, ensuring aircraft availability for the war effort. Despite wearing uniforms and meeting military standards, these remarkable women were not officially part of the “military.”
In fact, WASPs who perished during their service did not receive any military death benefits. None were entitled to use the GI Bill. It wasn’t until 1977, decades after the WASPs were disbanded, that their service was finally recognized by Congress.
And it was not until 1975, some 27 years after the order to integrate women, that women were permitted to attend any of the military academies. Women were not allowed to fly Navy and Army aircraft until 1973. The Air Force and Coast Guard finally followed in 1976. Women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft until 1993, some 45 years after the passage of the 1948 act.
One of the most monumental policy changes came in 2013 when then-Secretary of Defense Leo Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat, eliminating all policy barriers to women serving in all military jobs. But those efforts met with friction. Most vocally, the Marine Corps, which resisted women’s integration into its combat jobs. Defense Secretary Ash Carter doubled down on the policy in 2015, ordering the services to open all combat jobs to women.
Still, in the last eight years, service women have seen more inclusive policies: women can wear their hair in ponytails and braids instead of a bun, which got in the way of flight helmets and night vision goggles or got caught when scrambling into Kevlar protective gear.
The Air Force recently rewrote policies to allow pregnant aviators to return to flight status after consultation with medical providers, eliminating the ban on flying while pregnancy. The Army recently rolled out a comprehensive policy on pregnancy, post-partum and parenthood, overhauling policies impacting women. But none of the other services have made these same changes to date.
Why are we still confronting these basic issues 75 years after the order to “integrate” women? Did most of the DoD assume that women would “tough it out” and figure out how to live in a man’s world? Did most of the DoD assume women would grow tired of a system that is not built for them and leave?
The idea that the caliber of the military will somehow become “less than” by the integration of women is simply not reality. Women have shown they can meet the same job standards required of men. The integration of women does not require standards to be lowered. Women work operational missions while pregnant and while balancing the demands of parenthood and career.
The difference between accommodation and integration is simple. When equipment, uniforms and aircraft are designed for men, so women aviators have to puzzle out how to use the bathroom on an aircraft, then we know integration has not been realized.
When a lactation space is an afterthought rather than an assumed requirement, childcare is by default a women’s issue and women still must fight for equity in policy and culture, it is clear that women have been accommodated, not integrated.
Some critics believe the DoD should not be focused on diversity and inclusion but instead should focus on the lethality of the joint force as it competes with our strategic competitors. It is not only incorrect, but naïve and shortsighted to not realize they are one and the same. These are readiness issues.
Women make up roughly 19.35% of the military. If roughly 19% of the military is not combat ready, then that is 19% less combat capability available to fight our adversaries.
And at a time when 77% of the population is not eligible for military service, we need every person who can meet those standards. Barriers faced by service women get in the way of our readiness. And our lethality.
Sam Sliney is a mother of two and wife to an Army Green Beret. Since 2014, she has served in the U.S. Air Force as a Judge Advocate. She is currently assigned to a Special Operations Forces unit where she provides legal advice on a wide array of legal issues to include operations and international law. Sam is passionate about creating an inclusive Department of the Air Force and Department of Defense to increase lethality of the joint force. Specifically, she advocates for equitable support and accessibility for women during all phases of womanhood, particularly pregnancy and post-partum.
These views are solely those of the author, and do not purport to be the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
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