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1950s:Recruitment

When the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, the number of women in the armed forces was so small and recruitment so restricted that the military was unable to mobilize the large number of women they suddenly felt they needed to conduct a new war.

By September, the services began involuntarily recalling veterans to meet the demand for personnel, but as the Reserve rapidly tapped out, the armed forces stepped up recruitment of women.

he shortage of nurses and other medical specialists was particularly acute. The Army, Navy and Air Force combined had just under 7,500 nurses on active duty and projected a need for over 5,000 more by mid-1952. Each service branch began to concentrate on making military service more appealing. All services bought advertising time on radio and television and printed promotional literature and posters.

As concern at the Department of Defense (DoD) grew about the services’ inability to meet recruiting goals for women volunteers, the Secretary of Defense formed the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) in 1951 to advise on the recruiting project. DACOWITS members included the World War II women’s service directors; women college presidents, deans and professors; and women physicians, politicians, philanthropists and journalists. The DACOWITS remains a high-level advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense, providing advice to the secretary and the military departments on issues related to military women.

The committee suggested an all-out, DoD-wide, national campaign to recruit women for all services. Traveling teams of women in uniform went throughout the country seeking recruits. Typically, local newspapers would profile one of the recruiters so that readers could identify with her and feel comfortable that military women were just like “the girl next door.”

The services did everything they could think of internally–or everything that was thinkable given the societal ethos of the times–to make servicewomen happier. They provided women with “lighter” meals in the dining halls. They hired the best and most expensive couturiers to design new uniforms. And when it was suggested that servicemen did not appreciate military women, they required the men to attend lectures that explained why servicewomen were valued members of the armed forces.

What the military didn’t do to recruit and retain servicewomen is just as telling as what it did. On several occasions, civilian women advisors noted the lack of career opportunity and challenge for women—something surveys of women leaving the military had indicated. Others noted the many capable women— officers of stellar character—who had been kept years at junior rank while men of similar quality had been promoted.

By March of 1952, the failure of the recruitment campaign was apparent. Despite six months of intensive outreach, only 8,532 new servicewomen had joined the armed forces—less than one tenth the number hoped for.