In 1980, the first women graduated from the service academies as a result of Public Law 94-106 signed by President Gerald Ford on Oct. 7, 1975. The law passed the House by a vote of 303 to 96 and the Senate by voice vote after divisive argument within Congress, resistance from the Department of Defense and legal action initiated by women to challenge their exclusion.
When service academies first admitted women in 1976, more than 300 enrolled at the US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy and the US Coast Guard Academy. Male prejudice against women at the academies proved to be their biggest obstacle.
The schools reconfigured barracks, facilities and locker space and adapted some physical education requirements. Even though women were still excluded from combat and from serving aboard vessels or aircraft engaged in combat missions, academy curricula prepared them for these roles in the nation’s defense.
In 1980, 66 percent of the women in the first coeducational classes graduated—comparable to 70 percent of the men whose attrition rate due to academic failure was twice that of women. But women service academy graduates posed new issues for the armed services. Would gender-based law and policy limit the careers of these highly qualified new officers?