During the 1960s, the clash between traditional views of women’s roles and the social movement for equal opportunity for women resonated throughout the military. As the decade began, the laws, regulations and policies pertaining to servicewomen stood in sharp contrast to the ideas of the growing feminist movement.
The continuing Cold War and the resulting Cuban missile crisis, construction of the Berlin Wall, and escalating involvement in Southeast Asia required the build up of American military strength. The country relied on the Selective Service System to draft sufficient numbers of young men, but the armed services maintained that women volunteers needed to be smarter and more qualified than these men in order to perform the jobs open to them. And they needed to be feminine.
Military recruiting brochures targeting women promised “challenging jobs with unlimited opportunities.” But in fact, by the 1960s most truly challenging technical jobs were closed to women, and those already trained and experienced in technical skills such as engine repair, equipment maintenance, intelligence, and weather and radio operations were retrained for jobs the military considered women’s work.
In the Army, WACs no longer underwent bivouac training or weapons famliarization. WAF recruits were told how to apply lipstick correctly and Women Marines were told their lipstick and nail polish had to match the scarlet braid on their uniform hats. Even in Vietnam under combat conditions, women were told to dress in skirts and pumps rather than boots and field clothing in order to project a neat and feminine image. Their careers were further limited because women were allowed few promotion opportunities and none could serve as admirals or generals.
Directors for women within the services generally supported narrow roles for servicewomen and they simply did not want to generate controversy that would jeopardize women’s already-marginal position in the armed forces. The directors sought acceptance for women in the military, not equality.
But the national concern for civil rights and gender equity—including equal opportunity for wages and promotions—began to impact the armed forces. In 1967, after years of debate within the military and pressure from various military advisory groups, Congress voted to allow women’s promotions to higher service grades, including general and admiral, and removed the two percent ceiling on women’s military strength; yet few women felt immediate effects from the legislation.
Despite advocating the bill, the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives stated,
… there cannot be complete equality between men and women in the matter of military careers. The stern demands of combat, sea duty, and other types of assignments directly related to combat are not placed upon women in our society. The Defense Department assured the committee that there would be no attempt to remove restrictions on the kind of military duties women would be expected to perform. …
… It is recognized that a male officer in arriving at the point where he may be considered for general and flag rank passes through a crucible to which the woman officer is not subjected–such as combat, long tours at sea, and other dangers and isolations.