Arguing For and Against Women in Combat, in 1978

In the late 1970s, military enlistment qualifications became the same for men and women.

By + More
In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan.

In the 1970s, a second wave of feminism spread across the nation, resurrecting talk of the Equal Rights Amendment, an idea conceived by early 20th century suffragettes. In 1972, the amendment passed through both the House and the Senate, however it ultimately failed to garner enough support from state legislatures for ratification. Despite that setback, women seeking equality did score some significant victories throughout the decade, especially in the military.

The military began to open its ranks to women in 1901 when the Army began accepting them as nurses. The Navy followed suit in 1908. During WWII, women's roles in the military expanded as Congress approved the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942 (renamed Women's Army Corps a year later). In 1975, Congress authorized the admission of women to federal service academies, and West Point accepted 119 female cadets a year later. In 1979, enlistment qualifications to enter the military changed to be the same for men and women. However, women were still barred from direct combat roles or assignments.

[DEBATE CLUB: Should Women Be Allowed to Fight in Combat?]

Shortly before the enlistment qualifications changed, U.S. News presented both sides of the women-in-combat argument with contrasting op-eds written by retired female military officers.

Elizabeth Hoisington, one of the first women to attain the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army and a leader of the Women's Army Corps, argued that women should not serve in combat roles because they aren't "physically, mentally and emotionally qualified" for combat. Her sentiments still form the crux of many arguments today against allowing women in combat.

She also argued that allowing women in combat would hurt the Army as a whole, leading to "weak links in our armor."

[READ: Should Same-Sex Couples Receive Military Benefits?]

Another point she made that is echoed today, especially when debating gays in the military, is that having people sexually attracted to one another in the same unit could lead to trouble:

"[W]e must consider the consequences of mixing men and women in units in a close situation like combat. Man-woman relationships become a problem, and they could cause costly distractions."

Hoisington also stated that most Americans were against the idea of women in combat units, with just "a small, nonrepresentative group of rather noisy women" advocating for the change. That argument is not commonly repeated today. According to recent opinion polls, attitudes on the subject have shifted dramatically during the last 45 years.

On the other side of the argument, Jeanne Holm, a Major General in the Air Force and the first woman to achieve the rank of two-star general in any branch of the military, thought the time had long since come for women to serve their nation in combat units.

Neither woman hinted at any fear of a rise in sexual assaults or discrimination, issues commonly brought up today. Holm argued that discrimination was disappearing "at a very rapid rate" in the 1970s and that institutional discrimination had been virtually eliminated. She also pointed out that in 1965 there were about 40,000 enlisted women and that the number would likely hit 87,000 by 1983. Today, there are more than 200,000 women enlisted in the military.

[READ: Former IDF Chief: Women Will 'Surprise' the U.S. Military]

Holm did express hesitations toward women serving in infantry units, believing that placing women on ships and in planes would be a more appropriate first step. However, she was open to the idea if tests conducted by the Army determined that they would be effective in those units.

Both women agreed that the effectiveness of the military as a whole could not be compromised in the name of gender equality, with Holmes stating "The No. 1 criterion must be the ability of the unit to perform its combat mission. Everything else has to be secondary to that."

Those small steps toward equality achieved in the 1970s set the stage for a big leap in January 2013 when the Pentagon lifted restrictions on women in combat. The timeframe for integration is January 2016, however Wednesday is the deadline for all service branches to submit their plans on studying women in combat.

This article originally ran in the Feb. 13, 1978, issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Should Women Fight in War?

NO - Women aren't "physically, mentally and emotionally qualified" for combat

Interview With Elizabeth Hoisington, Brigadier General, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Q. General Hoisington, why do you oppose assignment of women to combat units in the armed forces?

A. If we assign women to combat units, we must accept the inevitability of their going into battle.

I have no personal experience in a combat unit, but my male colleagues tell me—and I believe—"War is hell." Heads are blown off; arms and legs are maimed; suffering is so intolerable it affects men for years. It is bad enough that our men have to endure this. But do we want young women to suffer it, too?

I get fed up with all the studies about whether or how many women should be assigned combat units. Studies cannot duplicate the realism of a battle in a Vietnam jungle or the cold Korean hills, the trauma from killing, witnessing death and terrible wounds.

I do not doubt the Army has women who can complete a combat course, endure three days or three weeks under field conditions, and shoot as straight as any man. But in my whole lifetime, I have never known 10 women whom I thought could endure three months under actual combat conditions in an Army unit.

I think we should continue to have a legal bar against women in combat units—not because they are women but because the average woman is simply not physically, mentally and emotionally qualified to perform well in a combat situation for extended periods. Nor should our country allow women to subject themselves to this experience that is so devastating and leaves such dreadful wounds—mentally and physically.

Q. Do you think that putting women into combat units would reduce the effectiveness of our military forces?

A. Yes, I do. Women cannot match men in aggressiveness, physical stamina, endurance and muscular strength in long-term situations. In a protracted engagement against an enemy, soldiers with these deficiencies would be weak links in our armor. We cannot build a winning Army if the soldiers in it have no confidence in the long-term mental and physical stamina of their comrades.

Also, we must consider the consequences of mixing men and women in units in a close situation like combat. Man-woman relationships become a problem, and they could cause costly distractions.


Q. Would you favor allowing women to serve on combat ships and aircraft, while barring them from combat roles in the infantry or ground forces generally?

A. No, I do not think it's practical to make this distinction. Congress decided this question of women serving in combat planes and ships when they passed Public Law 625, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, in June, 1948. They said women will not be assigned to ships or planes that are engaged in combat missions. Congress also made it clear that it expected the Army to keep women out of combat units through its regulations.

Nothing has changed since then to make Congress change its mind. The American people do not want their women in combat units. Only a small, nonrepresentative group of rather noisy women are advocating that women be assigned to combat units.

Congress should not change the law. The Army should not change its regulations. They must continue to look at the big picture.

We know some women have the brains, ability and courage to be fighter pilots and part of a missile or ship's crew. But how are the mothers, fathers, husbands and brothers of these women going to feel when the planes and ships go down, the women are killed or taken prisoner? Who then will want to admit it was their idea to change the policy and put women in combat units?

Q. Do you oppose such a change because it would alter the traditional role and image of women in American society?

A. The crux of this whole thing is that women alone can be mothers. There's no transferring that role.

I think we already have a pretty good plan for the division of responsibility between the sexes. It's pretty plain that God intended women to bear the children and men to be the protectors in our society.

Q. Isn't it unfair to limit a woman's job opportunities—to say she cannot become a fighter pilot or a destroyer captain or a platoon leader—simply because of her sex?

A. This question cannot be decided on the basis of job opportunities or equal rights. It has to be decided on the basis of whether or not this is the proper thing for women to be doing.

We shouldn't let people who have no knowledge of war or combat duty make the decision. We should listen to men with knowledge and experience in such matters. They alone know the endurance and stamina required. They alone know the reaction to hand-to-hand combat, to bodies and minds being blown apart or crippled forever. Ask any combat-experienced Army officer or NCO [noncommissioned officer] if he wants his daughter assigned to a combat unit.

Q. What about the women themselves? Obviously, they might be exposed to physical danger. Do you fear it might be harmful to them in other ways as well?

A. Yes, it would be harmful in many ways. If women knew or could even imagine the physical, mental, and emotional demands of serving in combat, they would not blithely or bravely volunteer to serve in combat. The peripheral dangers of serving in combat units—being raped by stronger or temporarily crazed comrades; being taken prisoner of war and similarly abused, beaten and starved; being mentally and physically incapable of performing one's assigned duties in combat and being responsible for others being killed or wounded—these are some of the other harmful situations women would experience in combat. There is more to fear in combat than just being killed and not returning to your loved ones at home.

Q. Will it be possible for the armed services to continue with the all-volunteer force without using women in combat or, at least, semicombat units?

A. Yes, I think so. Just recently, the Secretary of the Army stated that all-volunteer Army is a success. If this is true, there should be no need to change the policy on using women in combat units.

Should Women Fight in War?

YES - "Get over the notions that we have about women in combat"

Interview With Jeanne Holm, Major General, U.S. Air Force (Ret.)

Q. General Holm, why do you favor abolishing laws that limit the assignment of women to combat units in the armed forces?

A. I feel that it is inevitable that the law that currently limits the use of women as air-crew members and aboard ships is going to be changed in the near future because that's the direction our culture is going. Service Secretaries should be allowed to use their own discretion in the assignment and training of all their people.

Q. Should there be any limit on the use of women in combat?

A. I see no reason for any restrictions on the use of women as members of combat air crews. I see no reason why they should not serve aboard combat ships.

The bottom line is obviously infantry. There I have a little difficulty. I think the services have to be very cautious in what they do in that regard because there are unique problems. The Army is currently conducting tests to determine just how far they can and should go with the use of women in combat units of that kind. We just have to wait to see what they find out.

Remember, only 8 per cent of the people in the armed forces are infantrymen. There are other forms of combat without being in the infantry.


Q. Do you mean armored forces and—

A. Yes. And artillery. Missiles. I think that the armed forces ought to find out what the limitations really are, and get over the notions that we have about women in combat. They should find out what the problems really are—get down to the nitty-gritty. I think the Army is finally facing up to that. I would be very surprised if women end up as infantrymen. But I leave that door open. The Army may find that I'm wrong on that.

Q. Is there a danger that women in combat will lower the efficiency of these units in battle, and perhaps even endanger lives of the whole unit?

A. It might; it might not. If it lowers combat efficiency, then we have no choice but to exclude them.

The No. 1 criterion must be the ability of the unit to perform its combat mission. Everything else has to be secondary to that.

Q. Would the nation's military power over all be affected by putting large numbers of women into combat units?

A. That is another concern that the armed forces do have. Any reticence that the military has about increasing the numbers of women is, I am convinced, a genuine, deep-seated concern about combat effectiveness. There is a concern that a potential enemy would see this as a weakening of our resolve, a weakening of our armed forces. But it's interesting to note that the Russians in World War II used large numbers of women as combatants in the military—even as pilots of combat aircraft.

Q. How many women should the armed forces recruit?

A. First, let me point out that there are literally tens of thousands of jobs that women could do without ever coming up against the issue of combat—particularly in the Air Force.

In fact, the Air Force already is expanding its use of women at an enormous rate—probably as fast as practical. They've gone from 5,000 enlisted women and about 700 officers—exclusive of nurses—in 1965 to 40,000. Now, that's pretty spectacular. And they're planning to double that to 87,000 in five years. Where they will go from there will depend on what the recruiting climate is.

Q. Is there more discrimination against women in the military services than there is in civilian jobs?

A. Once a woman is in the forces, the discrimination is much less. As a matter of fact, it's disappearing at a very rapid rate. Almost all institutional discrimination has been eliminated.

Q. Do you think that we're going to see a time when women are going to be commanders of the armed forces and members of the Joint Chiefs?

A. Yes. I don't know when that time is. It's got to be at least 20 years from now because the people who achieve those positions generally are academy graduates. Women have just been admitted to academies—and in very tiny numbers.

Q. Isn't there a disproportionately high dropout rate of women from the military services?

A. The statistics that the services have been gathering indicate that the loss of time for women on duty is less than lost time for men—even taking into account time lost for pregnancy. Actually, the retention rate of women is higher than for the men. I always thought that because of pregnancy the turnover rate of women would always be a little bit higher than the men. But what has happened is that the retention rate of women has got up while the retention rate of men has gone down.

You see, we have changed the policies with regard to women and children. And we now make it much easier for a woman to stay in the armed forces and have a normal family life. The concept that it's not feminine for a woman to be in the military is disappearing.

Q. In your view, is it necessary to eliminate the restriction on women in combat roles to save the volunteer service?

A. No. This is not critical to the volunteer forces because of the relatively high ratio of noncombat to combat personnel required by modern military forces. However, there's no question in my mind that women are making the all-volunteer force a reality. Not only that, they are improving the quality of the force.

If we expect to meet the future requirements of all-volunteer forces, I don't think we have any choice but to continue to use more women. Otherwise we're going to have to resort to some kind of selective service again, and I don't think that's in the cards.

More News:

  • Osama bin Laden's Death, Two Years Later
  • 'Mission Accomplished': Bush's Infamous Speech, a Decade Later
  • Pre-'Iron Lady' Thatcher Was as Steely as Ever