1950s became a decade of survival in an unwelcome environment for
women in the armed forces. The military had difficulty recruiting
women when it needed them and retaining them once they enlisted.
While the Cold War and the Korean War required military buildup,
the country's social climate promoted ambivalence within the armed
forces toward maximizing women's contribution to national defense.
The era represented a particularly
critical period in armed forces history. After a year of bitter
congressional and public debate, President Harry S Truman had signed
the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, establishing
a permanent place for women (other than nurses, who were already
permanent) in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Truman
also issued Executive Order 9981 during 1948 mandating racial desegregation
of the armed forces. During the 1950s, the military grappled with
the meaning and interpretation of those measures.
drive to recruit women into the US Armed Forces and the gradual
implementation of racial desegregation in the military were at odds
with social trends of the early 1950s. Broadly speaking, the American
cultural climate relegated most women to non-professional, low-paying
jobs and promoted a feminine ideal of domesticity and maternalism.
Despite decades of protest, political and legal activism, the inequities
of the separate but equal doctrine of the 1896 Plessy
v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision still shaped race relations
and white attitudes in most of America.
When the Korean War began in 1950,
the United States found itself involved in a conflict for which
it was unprepared. A downsized military establishment rushed to
call up, draft and recruit the needed manpower. And when it came
up short, the services asked American women to leave their homes,
jobs and families and serve their country during its time of needjust
as they had in previous wars.
the military offered women far more restricted opportunities than
in World War II. During the 1950s, opportunities for any but traditional
job assignments declined significantly. More than half the women
worked in pink collar positions such as personnel and
administration and their basic training included stereotypical women's
classes such as makeup and etiquette lessons.
1951 Army recruiting pamphlet promised, In authorizing job
assignments for women, particuar care is taken to see that the job
does not involve a type of duty that violates our concept of proper
employment for sisters and girlfriends. In the military transport
field, for example, women do not drive heavy trucks.
Pregnancy and seesawing policies
on marriage further contributed to women's attrition rates. Discharge
for pregnancy was automatic, and mothers of children under the age
of 18 were not permitted to volunteer. The services flipflopped
on discharge for marriage, at first rescinding the policy of automatically
letting go women who requested discharge on marriage and then reinstating
the policy when women became pregnant in order to resign. Lack of
equality in dependent entitlements such as family housing and medical
care also made the military less attractive to women.
By the end of the war in 1953, the
total numbers of women in the military had increased, but their
percentage in the armed forces declined. For the remainder of the
decade, the recruitment and retention of women entered a state of
near-inertia. The all-male draft, an absence of official policy
and directives encouraging the use of women, family-unfriendly policies,
high turnover rate and societal attitudes towards women's roles
contributed to serious doubts on one hand and ambivalence on the
other about the vaue of women's programs to peacetime defense forces.
Women responded to those failures
by staying away in droves.