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  Women marine recruits at Parris Island, SC learn to field strip the M-16A 1 rifle during basic training, 1986.  

During the 1980s, the first women cadets graduated from the service academies and the numbers of women in the armed forces increased dramatically to 12 percent of total personnel by the end of the decade. Significant numbers of women now held jobs traditionally considered male-only and women were deployed to conflict zones in Grenada and Panama.

  Senior naval enlisted advisor supervises a working party on USS Grapple as the ship tows three minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1988.  

“We have wonderful servicewomen doing extraordinary things and doing very well, but we have taken a male institution...and turned it into a coed institution, and it has been a traumatic exercise for us,” General John Vessey, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated in 1984. The effect of these servicewomen on military readiness and mission accomplishment became a major issue of the decade.

  Member of first-ever, all-female parachute jump at Fort Bragg, NC, packs up her kit bag, 1980.  

Debate flew between military leaders opposed to increasing women's role in the services and civilian officials committed to strengthening the armed forces through expanding the utilization of women and ensuring fair treatment and professional equity for them. In the end, the decade reflected a 1982 memorandum to the service secretaries from Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

Qualified women are essential to obtaining the numbers of qualified people required to maintain the readiness of our forces...While we have made progress, some institutional barriers still exist. ..This Department must aggressively break down those remaining barriers that prevent us from making the fullest use of the capabilities of women in providing for our national defense.

But a major barrier to women's career advancement and usefulness remained unanswered during the decade. Women were still excluded from combat, the core mission of the military and a major determinant of promotions. But the definition of combat was unclear and varied among the services at different times and under different conditions. Military involvement in Panama and Grenada forced the services to re-evaluate the meaning of combat and the application of combat exclusion laws, and to decide how to reconcile equal career opportunities for women with combat-exclusion policies.




Women in the US Military - 1980s