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1970s: Family Policy

Until the 1970s, the family policies of the armed services rested on the premise that women’s responsibilities as wives and mothers took precedence over their military careers. As a result, women were involuntarily discharged for pregnancy and for having minor children in the home. They were also allowed to request discharges upon marriage (an option not given to male military personnel).(View TSgt Virginia ManziView TSgt Virginia Manzi’s honorable discharge papers.honorable discharge papers.)

Married servicewomen did not receive the same benefits as men, such as military housing for families, and their spouses were not entitled to family medical care routinely available to servicemen’s wives—unless they could prove their husbands and children were, infact, dependent.

As equal rights for women and the Equal Rights Amendment became a national concern, the military gradually acknowledged the need to confront gender discrimination and establish more flexible family policies if they were to attract and retain women. Pragmatism defined this acknowledgement. By 1975, the percentage of women leaving the armed services was alarming and without them, the military could not offset manpower shortages brought on by ending the draft.

Even so, most senior officers, including female officers, argued against policy changes, particularly those for pregnancy and parenthood. In 1970, WAC Director COL Elizabeth Hoisington wrote:

In reviewing … proposals on separation regulations for women in the Army, I can only conjecture that they are based on the notion that the Army discriminates against women by requiring their separation when they become pregnant. It is a fact that a woman has freedom of choice in deciding whether or not she will become pregnant. If she elects, therefore, to become pregnant and deliberately incapacitates herself … how has the Army discriminated against her?

In May 1975, the Department of Defense (DoD) ordered the armed forces to rescind involuntary discharge for pregnancy–although women could still choose to resign. The services complied, but they were not happy, even though studies showed that men lost more time from work than women and that their absences cost the military more.

In fact, DoD studies indicated that, except for the Air Force, enlisted men generally had a higher amount of time lost to work than pregnant women—primarily because of desertion, Absent Without Leave (AWOL), or alcohol or drug abuse. The services abandoned efforts to regain the authority to discharge women for pregnancy, accepted the associated time lost and medical costs, continued to debate women’s usefulness to military preparedness, and dealt with complaints of preferential treatment in job assignments for pregnant women.

A rash of legal actions challenging gender discrimination helped to provoke change during the decade. In 1973, the Supreme Court declared in Frontiero v. Richardson that it was unconstitutional to require a female member of the armed forces to prove that her civilian spouse and unmarried minor children were dependent upon her in order to obtain entitlements such as medical care and housing.

By 1976, in the case of Crawford v. Cushman, the Second Circuit court held that the Marine Corps’ regulation requiring discharge of a pregnant Marine as soon as pregnancy is discovered violated the Fifth Amendment. Other suits in district courts challenged involuntary discharge for women with minor children in the home, involuntary discharge for pregnancy in the Navy, the National Guard and other services.

While legal decisions and official policy expanded equality for women within the armed forces during the 1970s, accompanying attitudinal changes occurred more slowly. The relationship between women’s family roles and a military career remained a highly emotional and subjective issue during subsequent eras.