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In 1990, women comprised 11 percent of active duty military personnel and 13 percent of reserve forces., Despite their expanded numbers, women's roles in large-scale military operations remained unclear and untested.

  Aboard transit deploying to the Persian Gulf as the non-commissioned officer in charge of the liaison cell to the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, 1991.  

But in January 1991, more than 33,000 servicewomen deployed to Southwest Asia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and the role of women in the military passed another milestone. Faces in the news were those of women at war working as soldiers side-by-side with their male colleagues and often in command roles. The media covered the sacrifices and challenges of leaving their families and interviewed husbands and children, proud of their mothers and wives. The American public responded favorably to this image.

Desert Storm proved that servicewomen could not be kept safe simply by classifying some jobs as non-combat positions and assigning women to those jobs. Thirteen servicewomen were killed and two were prisoners-of-war. As Army Sergeant Barbara Bates put it, “When the shells start coming downwind, I will be counting on my flak jacket for protection, not my [job title].”

  Aboard the USS Sylvania during Operation Desert Storm, 1990.  

The war also emphasized the difficulty of separating combat and noncombat jobs. Women piloted and crewed planes and helicopters over the battle area, directed and launched Patriot missiles, manned machine guns and guarded bases from terrorist attack. There were no clear front lines in the desert and as combat zones shifted, women often found themselves in the thick of the action.

As a result of Desert Storm, by the middle of the decade, women had dented the combat barrier. In December 1991, President George Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993 which included a provision to repeal the 43-year-old legal barriers on women flying combat missions in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines—and the Army by inference. The Act included authorization to suspend of gender-based restrictions on sea and land combat roles. Women were assigned to aircraft and naval vessels engaged in combat missions. By the turn of the century, they comprised almost 14 percent of active military duty personnel and were reaching the highest levels of command.

  A Navy nurse and Air Force JAG officer prepare for a medal ceremony during duty in Croatia in 1994.  

After Desert Storm, the American military responded to hot spots around the globe and servicewomen remained an integral part of that response. Working alongside the troops of other nations or under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), US servicewomen and men deployed to Bosnia-Herzogovina, Macedonia, Haiti, Rwanda, Guatemala and other countries. These were peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief missions.

At home, they shepherded the military through the largest downsizing in five decades, running military installations and supervising base closures. Servicewomen were integral to military research and development and to protecting the nation's institutions and resources. More were promoted to senior officer and enlisted ranks and the services promoted the first women to three-star rank.

While issues of equal opportunity for women in the military still remain, the distance was staggering between the servicewomen in 1999 and the Army nurses of 1901 who served their country before they could even vote.

As a result of the progress of the 1990s, women are now excluded from only nine percent of Army roles—although that figure represents nearly thirty percent of active-duty positions. In the Air Force, 99 percent of all occupations are open to women; and in the Navy, women are only excuded from submarines and SEAL teams.

Women in the US Military - 1990s