In 1972, two policy issues intertwined to advance women’s position in the US Armed Forces: the decision to end the draft and to rely on an all-volunteer military force (AVF) and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. These policy and legislative moves focused attention on the issue of women’s equality in the armed services, and throughout the decade, barriers to women’s full integration into military life began to fall.
The decision to end the draft and depend on an all-volunteer force caused the Department of Defense to increase recruiting goals for women to meet personnel needs. In 1972, one in every 30 recruits was a woman. By 1976, one in every 13 recruits was a woman. As Congress debated and passed the Equal Rights Amendment and public dialogue focused on equal rights for women, the Department of Defense knew it needed to look at problems of gender discrimination in the military as well.
Personnel policies and opportunities for career development were revised across the services. The military gradually forced more balanced representation of women out of saturated traditional fields to representation in most occupations. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs became coeducational. Nontraditional job opportunities expanded for women in all services and some Navy and Coast Guard ships sailed with male/female crews.
Weapons training became mandatory. The Army and the Navy opened pilot training to women in 1972 and six Navy women earned their wings and the designation of Naval aviator in 1973. The Air Force followed in 1976. That year, women were admitted to the service academies and male and female recruits shared some coeducational training. By 1978, the Air Force began training women to serve on Titan missile launch crews and the numbers of women increased in the Reserve and National Guard.
Social equality, too, moved to the forefront during the decade. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled inFrontiero v. Ferguson that the civilian spouses of military women were to be afforded the same benefits as the civilian spouses of military men including use of the commissary, base exchange and military medical facilities. And, housing became available at married rate. In 1975, the Department of Defense ordered the services to discontinue the practice of discharging women for pregnancy, although the debates about family policy did not lessen.
Increasing the opportunities and utilization of servicewomen was not a smooth process. Behind each door that opened lay months of discussion, study and argument among policymakers and military leaders about the value and effectiveness of women to the mission of the armed forces. According to a report issued by the independent policy-research think tank, The Brookings Institution, in 1976, “The tradeoff in today’s recruiting market is between a high quality female and a low quality male. The average woman available to be recruited is smaller, weighs less, and is physically weaker than the vast majority of male recruits. She is also much brighter, better educated (a high school graduate), scores much higher on the aptitude tests and is much less likely to become a disciplinary problem.” The services realized that they had to develop more policies before they could obtain maximum efficiency from these new recruits.