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The Women’s Movement & Challenging the Status Quo

The Women’s Movement
Hard on the heels of the movement for racial equality came the women’s movement. Women, like minorities, demanded equal treatment in the eyes of the law and sought expanded economic and educational opportunities. Many resented the assumption that their career options were limited to secretarial work, teaching, and nursing and they decided to become doctors and lawyers instead. Others demanded the opportunity to work in automobile assembly plants and steel mills because wages were higher there than in beauty parlors and grocery stores.29Frequently, however, when a woman worked in a man’s job, she was paid far less than a man would be. This was another extremely significant point of contention among feminists determined to change the system and with it women’s economic status.30

Women who volunteered to serve their country during the war in Vietnam were products of this new philosophy. Although servicewomen’s job assignments were distinctly limited, women and men of the same rank, be they officer or enlisted, were paid the same. This well known “perk” drew many ambitious, goal-oriented women into the service. These women expected challenging assignments and wanted to be allowed to contribute to the best of their abilities. Many women volunteered to serve in the theater of war because that was where they believed they were needed. The military, which had been one of the first sectors of society to officially end racial segregation, had a harder time accommodating the expectations of servicewomen. Although they were not legally prohibited from assigning women to Vietnam, deeply imbedded cultural beliefs bolstered the military’s reluctance to send women to the battle theater. Furthermore, ever since 1948, the services had trained women for a limited number of administrative-type jobs which were accomplished behind desks at headquarters, not in the field. As supervisors, women officers were in most cases limited to supervising other women. Overall, these restrictions limited the number of assignments to Vietnam available to servicewomen and had an adverse impact on servicewomen’s morale.31

When the war in Vietnam started, the maximum number of women in each service was still limited by law to 2 percent. Most military women served as nurses, secretaries or clerks. Very few women other than nurses held supervisory positions. It was very difficult for women who were not nurses to get an assignment to Vietnam. Ironically, at the same time many young men resisted the draft because they did not want to go to Vietnam, military women, both black and white, viewed assignment to Southeast Asia as a privilege. Members of the WAC and women in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps pressured their chains of command for assignments to Vietnam with little success. One African-American Air Force lieutenant colonel who had completed a highly classified counterintelligence course in preparation for assignment to Vietnam saw her orders abruptly cancelled. Initially, she was uncertain whether her rejection was based on her race or her gender. She eventually learned that her race had nothing to do with the decision to hold her back. It was simply that her superiors were uncomfortable with the idea of sending a woman to Vietnam.32

Challenging the Status Quo
The 1960s were a time of dramatic and intensely public social ferment in the United States. Challenging authority–the authority of parents, the courts, the government, social traditions and history–was seen as healthy. For example, many people did not believe that the United States should be involved in the war in Vietnam and objected strongly to the military draft, which had been in place since 1948. Anti-war demonstrations were seen frequently on television, as were grim scenes of devastated villages, mutilated Vietnamese women and children, and increasing American casualty counts. Draft calls soared from 100,000 in 1964 to 400,000 in 1966, and many of those called had little enthusiasm for a tour of duty in Vietnam. Some chose to resist the draft, others chose to challenge the political institutions that supported the draft. Some resistance became violent and the reputation of the military suffered.24

Although the US Armed Forces claimed to be integrated, African-Americans wondered why black servicemen, both those who had volunteered to serve in the military and those who were drafted into the service, were promoted to higher ranks infrequently and why so many appeared to be serving in infantry units in Vietnam.25 In reality, although the enlisted ranks of the services were integrated by the 1960s, the military did not yet provide equal opportunity for promotion to its black officers, leading to legitimate concern on the part of African-American soldiers and commentators.26 Unfortunately, the military services, increasingly sensitive to what appeared to be criticism from all sides, clamped down on uniformed personnel and treated every soldier with a complaint or question, legitimate or not, as a disciplinary problem.27

In the civilian sector, African-Americans began demanding equal treatment at the ballot box, in the courtroom and in the classroom. They challenged all forms of segregation, in housing, transportation, restaurants, restrooms and colleges. Black women played a pivotal role in the battle for civil rights at the local level from the 1950s forward, and when white college students joined blacks in the movement in the 1960s, they saw black women functioning in key grassroots leadership positions. This “experience of women’s leadership,” wrote one historian of the period, “would contribute to the gradual emergence of the feminist agenda.”28


24John Whiteclay Chambers II, “Conscription,” The Readers Companion to American History, Houghton Mifflin Online Study Center (10 January 2006).

25Moskos and Butler, 8-9.

26Moskos and Butler, 30-33.

27Moskos and Butler, 30-33.

28William Chafe, “The Road to Equality 1962 to Today,” No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States by Nancy Cott, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 533.

29Chafe, 563.

30Chafe, 577

31Holm, 205-225.

32Holm, 210; Witt et al., 36.