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1980s: The Decade

The 1980s opened with the graduation of women from the service academies and closed with servicewomen’s deployment to Panama in 1989 as integral parts of their units. By the end of the decade, the number of women in the armed forces had increased dramatically to 11 percent of total military personnel and significant numbers of women held jobs traditionally considered male only.

“We have wonderful servicewomen doing extraordinary things and doing very well, but we have taken a male institution … and turned it into a coed institution, and it has been a traumatic exercise for us,” GEN John Vessey, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated in 1984. The effect of these servicewomen on military readiness and mission accomplishment became a major issue of the decade.

Debate flew between military leaders opposed to increasing women’s role in the services and civilian officials committed to strengthening the armed forces through expanding the utilization of women and ensuring fair treatment and professional equity for them. In the end, the decade reflected a 1982 memorandum to the service secretaries from Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

Qualified women are essential to obtaining the numbers of qualified people required to maintain the readiness of our forces … While we have made progress, some institutional barriers still exist. … This Department must aggressively break down those remaining barriers that prevent us from making the fullest use of the capabilities of women in providing for our national defense.

But a major barrier to women’s career advancement and usefulness remained unanswered during the decade. Women were still excluded from combat, the core mission of the military and a major determinant of advancement. But the definition of combat was unclear and varied among the services at different times and under different conditions. Military involvement in Panama and Grenada forced the services to re-evaluate the meaning of combat and the application of combat exclusion laws, and to decide how to reconcile equal career opportunities for women with combat-exclusion policies.