Updated: 26-Mar-2002 Committee on Women in NATO Forces

Special Edition


United States


Women served with the military in one capacity or another dating back to the Revolutionary War. They became part of the Armed Forces early in the 20th Century with the establishment of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. However, the number of servicewomen increased considerably during WWI. During this period, 36,000 women served, of which 200 died and 80 were held as prisoners of war. In WWII, 400,000 women served. In 1948, Congress passed the Armed Forces Integration Act, which stipulated a 2% strength limitation for women serving in the military, a promotion ceiling no higher than Lieutenant Colonel/Commander, and a combat exclusion law.

In 1967, a Public Law eliminated the promotion and strength ceilings. Officer Training School, which was the only accession point for female officers, was not allowed until 1969. A year later, the Reserve Officer Training Corps was accessible to women joining the Air Force and to the Army and Navy in 1972.

The true break for women in the US came in 1973 with the All-Volunteer Force, which opened new career fields and opportunities to them. Separate female units were abolished in 1978, and in 1993, the combat exclusion law was repealed offering even more opportunities.


Active and reserve forces are organised under civilian Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, all of which report to the Secretary of Defence (SECDEF). The Marine Corps is organised under the Secretary of the Navy, while the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Transportation; but in times of war, it may organise under the Department of Defence (Secretary of the Navy).

Both women and men serve equally, receive equal pay and benefits, and are subject to the same disciplinary standards. They both are held to the same standards of performance levels and follow the same chain of command, depending on the Service.

The Defence Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) was established in 1951 by the SECDEF to provide information, advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to women in the Armed Forces. Its members, civilian women and men, are appointed by the SECDEF for three-year terms. The goal is to support the military's demand for excellence in performance from talented women and men in the Services, and seeks consistent adoption and vigorous enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies regarding gender discrimination.

General Policies

During the past few years, the Department opened more than 260,000 combat positions previously closed to women. The policy toward the assignment of women proceeded in three phases: first with a focus on aviation, then on the assignment to naval combatants, and finally on ground assignments. The last major change in US policy for women in the military occurred when the Defence Authorisation Act of Fiscal Year 1994 repealed the last ban on women on combat ships. The only positions that remain closed today are those that involve direct ground combat. The objective of the Department of Defence's assignment policy requires that assignments are made for all service members 'without regard to their colour, race, religious preference, ethnic background, national origin, age, or gender (except where prohibited by statue and limitation of facilities.)' The primary considerations in assignments are the service member's current qualifications to fill a valid requirement. This provides the flexibility needed to meet mission requirements.

The US military has extensive policies and directives on sexual harassment, gender and race discrimination, and equal opportunity, which include education and training, enforcement and assessment of the methods used to measure effectiveness. The SECDEF and Service Chiefs monitor these policies and measure the effectiveness of such programs.


Since April 1993, over 95% of all career fields are now open to female personnel. However, several positions remain closed to women due to current assignment policy rules. To name a few, some include infantry, armour, certain artillery posts, Special Operations Forces (SOF) Army aviation, combat engineers, Air Force SOF rotary wing pilots, combat controllers, para rescue, tactical air command and control, anti-air warfare, submarine, and certain ordnance and assault amphibious vehicle maintenance posts in the Marine Corps.

In terms of advancement, women compete for promotions equally with servicemen. For the first time in history, the highest rank attained by a woman is Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral (3-star equivalent). Currently, four women, one from each of the Services (minus the Coast Guard), have achieved this rank.


Nearly 200,000 women serve on active duty, excluding 3,420 (10.2%) women in the US Coast Guard, which falls under the Secretary of the Navy only in wartime.

Servicewomen comprise 14% of the active duty force (over 1.3 million personnel). The Army consist of 14.8% (~70,590) female personnel; 14.5% (~48,910) in the Navy; 19.1% (~66,376) in the Air Force, and 6.4% (~10,435) in the Marine Corps.


The US has comprehensive recruitment programs for each service. Both women and men require the same standards for entrance into basic training and initial officer training. To meet the recruiting challenges caused by a strong economy and the lowest youth unemployment rate in 29 years, the Services have devised new strategies to accomplish set recruitment goals. Recruiting initiatives include sign-up and increased enlistment bonuses, increase in female recruiters, together with aggressive advertising campaigns and increased Service College funds.


Women were allowed into the Service Academies and in flight programs in 1976. In 1993, the US repealed exclusion laws associated with combat aircraft. Female pilots are now allowed into the jet fighter training program. Aside from some differences in physical training and some weapons training, women and men train equally under the same standards. All personnel receive the same opportunities for additional professional military education and advanced training depending on their speciality.

In the last few years, the Services have improved their methods to train warriors with the right tools for war fighting in the 21st Century. In the Marine Corps, a week was added to recruit training and they overhauled combat training and Infantry school programs. The Army developed initiatives and efficiencies to reduce attrition, increase simulation use, and reduce combat training centre costs. The Services' leadership training and mentor programs cultivate potential leaders, and help both women and men achieve their career goals via career development.


Combat and deployments are not novelties to American servicewomen. About 37,000 US women soldiers served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, five of which gave their lives. This year, 8.6% of the US Forces deployed world-wide were women. Women pilots have participated in missions involving combat aircraft since 1993, when the exclusion law preventing them from ships and combat aircraft was lifted.

Women deploy all over the world in various specialities. Over 11,200 servicewomen representing each Service and over 180 occupational specialities, have supported NATO peacekeeping operations. Currently, approximately 1,400 women support these missions.

Recent and Projected Developments

The new millennium continues to provide new opportunities for US military women. The US military is developing new initiatives and visionary ideas towards joint operations, training, recruiting, and integration. "Joint Vision 2020" builds upon and extends the conceptual template established by "Joint Vision 2010" to guide the continuing transformation of America's Armed Forces. Military women are an integral part of this transformation process.
The US military continues to work in areas of equality management, force development and utilisation, and quality of life for all personnel. Among the issues underway include a review of the direct ground combat policy and the assignment of women aboard submarines. In terms of quality of life for personnel, the military is looking at ways to improve health care in remote/deployed locations, foreign country customs and attitudes toward women and the impact of multiple operations/deployments.


After more than 20 years of gender integration policies and regulations for its All-Volunteer Force, the US military continues to identify ways to increase opportunities for women. Regardless of gender, the best-qualified person can now fill more than 90% of the career fields in the Armed Forces. This is a testimony to military women who contribute to the nation's security, and represents a major increase in the flexibility of the military to maintain a high state of readiness.

National Co-ordination Office

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Director for Manpower and Personnel, J-1
The Pentagon, Room 1E841
Washington, DC 20318-1000
Tel: (703) 614-6335
Fax: (703) 614-3081
Email: binghacj@js.pentagon.mil
Address for DACOWITS: http://www.dti.mil/dacowits

National Delegate to the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces

Colonel Sheryl Murray, Marine Corps
Vice Director for Manpower and personnel, J-1 Joint Staff
The Pentagon, room 1E948
Washington DC, 20318-1000
United States of America
Tel: 00-703-697-9644
Fax: 00-703-693-1596
Email: sheryl.murray@js.pentagon.mil

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