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1950s:The Decade

The 1950s became a decade of survival in an unwelcome environment for women in the armed forces. The military had difficulty recruiting women when it needed them and retaining them once they enlisted. While the Cold War and the Korean War required military buildup, the country’s social climate promoted ambivalence within the armed forces toward maximizing women’s contributions to national defense.

This era represented a particularly critical period in armed forces history. After a year of bitter congressional and public debate, President Harry S Truman had signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, establishing a permanent place for women (other than nurses, who were already permanent) in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Truman also issued Executive Order 9981 during 1948 mandating racial desegregation of the armed forces. During the 1950s, the military grappled with the meaning and interpretation of those measures.

The drive to recruit women into the US Armed Forces and the gradual implementation of racial desegregation in the military were at odds with social trends of the early 1950s. Broadly speaking, the American cultural climate relegated most women to non-professional, low-paying jobs and promoted a feminine ideal of domesticity and maternalism. Despite decades of protest and political and legal activism, the inequities of the “separate but equal” doctrine of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision still shaped race relations and white attitudes in most of America.

When the Korean War began in 1950, the United States found itself involved in a conflict for which it was unprepared. A downsized military establishment rushed to call up, draft and recruit the needed manpower. And when it came up short, the services asked American women to leave their homes, jobs and families and serve their country during its time of need—just as they had in previous wars.

Yet the military offered women far more restricted opportunities than in World War II. During the 1950s, opportunities for any but traditional job assignments declined significantly. More than half the women worked in personnel and administrative jobs and their basic training included stereotypical “women’s” classes such as makeup and etiquette lessons.

A 1951 Army recruiting pamphlet promised, “In authorizing job assignments for women, particuar care is taken to see that the job does not involve a type of duty that violates our concept of proper employment for sisters and girlfriends. In the military transport field, for example, women do not drive heavy trucks.”

Pregnancy and seesawing policies on marriage further contributed to women’s attrition rates. Discharge for pregnancy was automatic, and mothers of children under the age of 18 were not permitted to volunteer. The services flipflopped on discharge for marriage, at first rescinding the policy of automatically letting go women who requested discharge upon marriage and then reinstating the policy when women became pregnant in order to resign. Lack of equality in dependent entitlements such as family housing and medical care also made the military less attractive to women.

By the end of the war in 1953, the total number of women in the military had increased, but their percentage in the armed forces declined. For the remainder of the decade, the recruitment and retention of women entered a state of near-inertia. The all-male draft, an absence of official policy and directives encouraging the use of women, family-unfriendly policies, high turnover rate and societal attitudes towards women’s roles contributed to serious doubts on one hand and ambivalence on the other about the value of women’s programs to peacetime defense forces.

Women responded to those failures by staying away in droves.