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1990s

In 1990, women comprised 11 percent of active duty military personnel and 13 percent of reserve forces. Despite their expanded numbers, women’s roles in large-scale military operations remained unclear and untested.

But during 1990 and 1991, more than 40,000 servicewomen deployed to Southwest Asia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and the role of women in the military passed another milestone. Many faces in the news were those of women at war working as soldiers side-by-side with their male colleagues and often in leadership roles. The media covered the sacrifices and challenges involved in leaving their families and interviewed husbands and children, proud of their mothers and wives. The American public responded favorably to this image.

Desert Storm proved that servicewomen could not be kept safe simply by classifying some jobs as non-combat positions and assigning women to those jobs. Thirteen servicewomen were killed and two were taken prisoner-of-war. As Army SGT Barbara Bates put it, “When the shells start coming downwind, I will be counting on my flak jacket for protection, not my [job title].”

The war also emphasized the difficulty of separating combat and non-combat jobs. Women piloted and crewed planes and helicopters over the battle area, directed and launched Patriot missiles, manned machine guns and guarded bases from terrorist attack. There were no clear front lines in the desert and as combat zones shifted, women often found themselves in the thick of the action.

As a result of servicewomen’s performance during Operation Desert Storm, the last of the laws restricting women’s service were lifted by the middle of the decade. In 1992, Congress repealed the restriction banning servicewomen from flying in aircraft engaged in combat missions. In 1993, they lifted the restriction banning women from serving aboard combat vessels. By the turn of this century, women comprised almost 14 percent of active military duty personnel and were reaching the highest levels of the military.

After Desert Storm, the American military responded to hot spots around the globe and servicewomen remained an integral part of that response. Working alongside the troops of other nations, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), US servicewomen and men deployed to Bosnia-Herzogovina, Macedonia, Haiti, Rwanda, Guatemala and other countries to perform peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief missions.

At home, they shepherded the military through the largest downsizing in five decades, running military installations and supervising base closures. Servicewomen were integral to military research and development and to protecting the nation’s institutions and resources. More were promoted to senior officer and enlisted ranks and, for the first time, the services promoted women to three-star rank.

While issues of equal opportunity for women in the military still remained, the distance between the servicewomen of 1999 and the Army nurses of 1901 who served their country before they could even vote was staggering.

As a result of the progress of the 1990s, women are now excluded from only 9 percent of Army roles—although that figure represents nearly 30 percent of active-duty positions. Army women cannot be assigned to the following occupational fields: infantry, armor, special forces, cannon field artillery and multiple launch rocket artillery. Also closed to women are: Ranger units at the regiment level and below, ground surveillance radar platoons, combat engineer line companies, and short range defense artillery units. In the Air Force, 99 percent of all occupations are open to women. Navy women are only excluded from submarine crews and SEAL teams, special boat unit crews and support positions with the Marine Corps ground combat units. The Marine Corps has opened 92 percent of its occupational fields to women, however 38 percent of positions are closed to women. Closed occupational fields include infantry, tank and assault amphibian vehicles and artillery. All Coast Guard occupations and positions are open to women.