Skip to content.
EServer » Feminism » Workplace » Women in the Professions » Facts About Women in the Military, 1980-1990

Feminism and Women's Studies


Facts About Women in the Military, 1980-1990

Factsheet produced by the Women's Research and Education Institute that disucsses roles for women in the military, how women in the military are viewed by the public, and the role of minority women in the military. Also includes timelines for women's involvement in each branch of the military.

Preparation and dissemination of this factsheet have been supported by grants to WREI from the George Gund Foundation and the Ford Foundation, with additional assistance from E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company.

The Women's Research and Education Institute (WREI) is an independent, national, public policy research and education center whose mission is to identify issues affecting women and their roles in the family, workplace, and public arena, and to inform and help shape the public policy debate on these issues.

Women's Research and Education Institute
1700 18th Street, N.W., Suite 400
Washington, DC 20009
202 / 328-7070


Since 1973, when the male draft ended and the All Volunteer Force began, the percentage of women among U.S. military personnel has increased dramatically, from 1.6 percent in 1973, to 8.5 percent in 1980, to 10.8 percent in 1989.'

Today, over 229,000 women serve on active duty in the military services of the Department of Defense (DOD): the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. About 15 percent of these women are officers; this is about the same percentage as that of military men overall. Although officers account for a larger proportion of total personnel in some of the services than in others, only in the Marine Corps are the women noticeably less likely than the men to be officers (seven percent vs. 10 percent).

A substantial proportion of all military women are minority women; in fact, minorities account for a considerably larger percentage of military women than of military men (38 percent vs. 28 percent). Minority representation is larger among enlisted women (41 percent) than among women officers (19 percent), but the disparity is less than for men (minorities account for 31 percent of enlisted men, 11 percent of male officers).

The military population is an educated one; standards for women are generally higher than those for men. Virtually all enlisted women (99.8 percent) are high school diploma graduates. While the comparable percentage for enlisted men is currently only slightly lower (98 percent), enlisted women are noticeably more likely than enlisted men to have attended college (27 percent vs. 21 percent).

Nearly all officers have at least a college bachelor's degree, and an increasing number of women are graduates of service academies; 1990 marked the 10th year women have graduated from the military academies of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Roles for Women in the Military in the United States...

In the United States, women in the military are thoroughly integrated into combat support roles and the services depend upon the capabilities of women. No law prohibits women from serving "in combat." Laws do prohibit the permanent assignment of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force women to ships and aircraft engaged in a combat mission, and while there is no comparable statutory prohibition for Army women, policies adopted by the Army and the other services further restrict women's roles. Whether statutory, or a matter of service policy, these prohibitions bar women in many career fields from being assigned to positions necessary or advantageous to advancement and promotion. In the U.S. armed services overall, 50 percent of military jobs are open to women, but the percentages vary greatly by service.

Women in the Coast Guard, a part of the Department of Transportation, are not subject to combat exclusion laws or policies. Consequently, all Coast Guard jobs are open to women.

Proportion of Jobs Open to U.S. Military Women by Service, 1989
Coast Guard 100%
Air Force 100%
Navy 59%
Army 52%
Marine Corps 20%

...and Abroad

Many other countries, which, like the U.S., have been faced with declining numbers of young men eligible for military, service during the last decade, have increased the numbers and job opportunities for women. For example:

  • In January 1990 the British opened seagoing positions on combat ships of the British Royal Navy to women.
  • Five NATO nations have no combat exclusion laws or policies: Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Portugal. In addition, Greece, The Netherlands, and Turkey have no statutory restrictions, although they do have selected policies. Italy and Spain are the only NATO nations that exclude women from military service.
  • Women in Canada and Denmark are trained as fighter pilots. (Ironically, the U.S. Air Force has trained Danish women fighter pilots but will not train U.S. Air Force women pilots to fly fighter aircraft.)
  • Although women in the Israeli armed forces are restricted to noncombatant roles, Israeli women, like Israeli men, are generally subject to military, conscription (there are some exemptions from compulsory service for women). Women are assigned to front-line combat units; if the unit is deployed on a combat mission the women are evacuated.
  • Approximately 6,000 women serve in support roles in Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

How the American Public Views Women in the Military

Public opinion polls show that Americans strongly support women's participation in the military except when it comes to direct, ground, hand-to-hand combat. And even that exception may be less widely held than it used to be. In January 1990, in the aftermath of the Panama invasion, a New York Times/CBS News Poll showed that 72 percent of those surveyed thought military women should be allowed to serve in combat units if they wanted to. A McCall's magazine telephone survey of 755 women, conducted in February 1990, found even stronger approval: 79 percent of the respondents agreed that women should be allowed to serve in combat units if they wanted to.

An extensive nationwide survey on attitudes concerning women in the military has not been done since 1982, when a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) showed strong public approval of women in the military. Eighty-four percent of the respondents in that survey said they wanted to maintain or increase the proportion of women in the military, and 81 percent thought the increased presence of women had not reduced military effectiveness. While only 35 percent favored allowing women in hand-to-hand combat, there was overwhelming support for women serving in the traditionally female jobs that expose women to combat (e.g., nurses), and significant majority support for women serving in less traditionally-female jobs associated with combat.

Here are some findings from the NORC survey:

Military Job % of respondents who approved of women holding job
Nurse in a combat zone 94
Military truck mechanic 83
Jet transport pilot 73
Fighter pilot 62
Missile gunner 59
Crew member on combat ship 57
Source: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, April 1983

Women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard

Since 1980, women have not only reached record proportions in all of the military services but have also made important breakthroughs in most of the services and in all of the service academies. Here are some key facts and "firsts" about women in each of the services.*


  • 86,000 active duty women (11 percent of the active duty force)**
  • Jobs currently open to women: 52 percent

No statute explicitly restricts the assignment of women in the Army, but it is Army policy to exclude women from positions it determines would have routine engagement in direct combat.

  • 1990
    • Three women brigadier generals are currently on active duty.
    • Both of the West Point cadets selected as Rhodes Scholars this year were women. (A West Point woman also won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1980.)
  • 1989
    • A Double First: Two women commanded Army companies in a combat operation (Panama invasion).
    • A Double First: Two women received the Army's Air Medal with "V" device for participation in a combat mission (Panama invasion).
    • Over 800 Army women participated in the invasion of Panama.
    • A First: Cadet Kristin Baker became the first woman to be selected Brigade Commander and First Captain of the West Point Corps of Cadets. (Her male predecessors in that position have included Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur.)
    • A First: The first female Army astronaut was selected by NASA. She is a mission specialist.
  • 1983
    • 170 Army women participated in the invasion of Grenada as military police, signal and communications officers, helicopter crew chiefs, maintenance personnel and ordnance specialists.
    • WREI Wishes to thank the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard for their cooperation in verifying information pertaining to their service.

**Personnel numbers for Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force are rounded to the nearest 1,000; percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number.


  • 57,000 active duty women (10 percent of the active duty force)
  • Jobs currently open to women: 59 percent

Job assignments for Navy women are restricted by statute and Navy policy: women cannot serve on ships, or fly aircraft, that are designated as "combat" by the Navy, although women are allowed to serve temporary duty on combat ships as well as to train men to fly combat planes. Women can be assigned to Navy auxiliary ships, such as repair, research, and training ships, and civilian contract ships; some 7,700 Navy women currently serve on over 100 Navy and civilian ships.

  • 1990
    • Three women rear admirals are currently on active duty.
    • A Record: Five women are currently rated as Navytest-pilots; no other service has that many female test-pilots.
    • A First: A Navy astronaut aboard the Challenger was the first U.S. military woman to go into space.
    • A First: A woman assumed command of a Navy aircraft squadron.
  • 1989
    • A First A female Surface Warfare Officer was selected for a command at sea.
  • 1988
    • A First: A woman was selected Shore Sailor of the Year.
  • 1987
    • Shipboard opportunities for Navy women were opened on the replenishment ships of the Combat Logistics Force.
    • 248 women were among the sailors sent to the Persian Gulf aboard the destroyer tender Acadia to repair the USS Stark, a frigate damaged by Iraqi missiles.
  • 1985
    • A First: A Navy woman became the first female jet test-pilot in any service.
  • 1984
    • A First: A woman graduated at the top of her U.S. Naval Academy class.
  • 1983
    • A First: The Navy assigned its first female helicopter test-pilot.

Marine Corps

  • 10,000 active duty women (five percent of the active duty force)*
  • Jobs currently open to women: 20 percent

The Marine Corps is a part of the Department of Navy; therefore, job assignments for Marine Corps women are subject to the statutory prohibitions that pertain to Navy women, as well as to other restrictions imposed by Corps policy.

  • 1990
    • The Corps' only woman general on active duty during the 1980s retired.
  • 1989
    • A First: Women were given command of selected Marine Corps units (a Marine Corps Recruiting Station and a Reserve Support Unit).
  • 1988
    • A First: A woman was made an assignment officer at Marine Corps Headquarters.

*One reason that the female percentage of Marine Corps personnel is lower than that of the other services is that the Corps has no medical branch of its own; it receives medical support from the Navy.

Air Force

  • 77,000 active duty women (14 percent of the active duty force)
  • Jobs currently open to women: 97 percent

Women are prohibited by statute from serving in aircraft engaged in a combat mission, although, it should be noted, female medical, dental, chaplains, and other such professionals are specifically exempted from this prohibition.

  • 1990
    • Two women brigadier generals are currently on active duty.
    • A First: An Air Force woman, the first female chosen to be a shuttle pilot, reported to NASA.
  • 1989
    • Female pilots and crew helped airlift troops and supplies during the Panama invasion (also the case during the Grenada invasion in 1983).
    • A First: The Air Force assigned its first femaletest-pilot.
    • The Air Force abandoned gender-based enlistment quotas. Today, men and women compete equally for enlistment in this service.
  • 1986
    • Air Force women served aboard the KC-10 and KC-135 Aircraft involved in the U.S. attack on Libya. Four were co-pilots, one was a back-up pilot, and one was a mission planner.
    • Peacekeeper and Titan missile positions were opened to women, as were positions as launch control officers for Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
    • A First: A woman graduated at the top of her Air Force Academy Class.

Coast Guard

  • 2,600 active duty women (seven percent of the active duty force)*
  • Jobs currently open to women: 100 percent

Although a uniformed service, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Transportation, and the statutory restrictions that pertain to military women in the Department of Defense do not apply to Coast Guard women. Women have served aboard Coast Guard ships since 1977. Women currently command coastal patrol boats which provide search and rescue services and maritime law enforcement on both the East and West Coasts. Women also serve as Anti-Submarine Warfare officers aboard Coast Guard cutters.

  • 1989
    • A First: A woman was the first person trained for a new specialty, Coast Guard Flight Officer. These officers are responsible for tactical co-ordination of the drug interdiction efforts aboard Coast Guard aircraft.
    • A First: The Coast Guard's rescue swimmer program graduated its first woman. Later that year, she saved the life of an Air National Guard pilot who was entangled in his parachute in the high seas off the Oregon coast.
  • 1988
    • A First: The "Chief Warrant Officer to Lieutenant" program promoted its first woman.
    • A First: An enlisted woman was assigned to a command position aboard a Coast Guard vessel.
  • 1987
    • A First: An enlisted woman was assigned to a command position ashore.
  • 1985
    • A First: A woman graduated first in her class at the Coast Guard Academy.
  • 1984
    • A First: A Coast Guard woman was the first female to serve as a Presidential Military Aide (she served until 1987).

*Number rounded to nearest hundred.

Focus on Minority Women in the Military

Throughout the services, minority representation is greater among female personnel than among male personnel. This is entirely a reflection of the difference in black representation, which is considerably larger (30 percent) among military women overall than among military men (19 percent); the representation of other minorities is very slightly higher among men than among women.

  • About 38 percent of all active duty military women are minority women: 30 percent are black, four percent are of "Spanish" origin and four percent are of "other" minority origin.*
  • Blacks constitute a considerably larger percentage of female military personnel than of employed civilian women, 11 percent of whom are black.
  • Minority women account for 19 percent, and black women alone for 13 percent, of all female officers. A female officer is more than twice as likely as a male officer to be black (13 percent vs. six percent).

There are significant variations by service with respect to representation of both minorities and women. For example:

  • Minority women account for more than half (55 percent)--and black women alone for 47 percent--of Army enlisted women. Minority women account for one-fourth--and black women for nearly one-fifth--of all female Army officers.
  • Thirty-six percent of Navy enlisted women are minority women, who are more likely than their Army counterparts to be of Spanish or "other" origin.
  • Only one in eight female Navy officers is a minority woman. However, minority representation among female Navy officers is higher than it is among male Navy officers.
  • Minority women account for 30 percent of all Air Force enlisted women, and for 18 percent of female Air Force officers.
  • Women are better represented among Air Force officers of every minority group than is the case in the other DOD services: women constitute 27 percent of black Air Force officers, 15 percent of those of Spanish origin, and 19 percent of "other" minority officers.
  • One in eight female officers in the Marine Corps is a minority woman. The Marine Corps is the only DOD service where a minority female is less likely than a minority male to be an officer.
  • Twenty-four percent of enlisted women in the Coast Guard, and eight percent of its female officers, are minority women.

*The classifications "Black," "Spanish," and "Other" ("Other" comprises Asian/Pacific Islanders, American Natives/Alaskan Natives, and Unknown) are used here because they are the classifications used by the Department of Defense. These classifications are not strictly comparable to those used by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Active duty Personnel in Department of Defense (DOD) Services and Coast guard by Sex and Minority Status, FY 1989*

    Number Black Spanish Other Total Minority
Enlisted Personnel          
Army Women 73,780 47.2 3.0 4.4 54.7
  Men 584,339 29.2 4.4 4.5 38.1
Navy Women 49,602 25.9 6.6 3.2 35.7
  Men 464,543 16.0 5.5 5.8 27.2
Marine Corps Women 8,975 28.4 6.8 3.7 39.0
  Men 167,795 20.3 6.8 3.1 30.2
Air Force Women 63,175 23.5 3.3 3.3 30.1
  Men 399,656 16.3 3.8 3.3 23.5
Total DOD Women 195,532 33.3 4.2 3.7 41.2
  Men 1,616,533 21.3 4.8 4.4 30.5
Coast Guard Women 2,374 16.4 4.0 3.2 23.6
  Men 27,651 6.8 4.3 2.7 13.8
Army Women 12,198 19.1 1.8 3.9 24.7
  Men 94,970 9.6 1.7 3.0 14.2
Navy Women 7,487 7.1 2.2 3.2 12.5
  Men 64,768 3.3 2.2 2.7 8.2
Marine Corps Women 691 8.4 2.0 2.2 12.6
  Men 19,356 5.0 2.2 1.9 9.2
Air Force Women 13,403 11.3 2.3 4.1 17.7
  Men 90,296 4.6 2.0 2.6 9.2
Total DOD Women 33,779 13.2 2.1 3.8 19.0
  Men 269,390 6.1 11.9 2.7 10.7
Coast Guard Women 262 2.7 0.4 5.0 8.0
  Men 6,203 1.7 1.5 2.2 5.3
* Coast Guard as of January 1990
** Includes warrant officers

Appendix - Combat Exclusions

There is no law that prohibits women from serving in combat. The statutes, which do not apply to the Army, specify only that women may not serve on ships and aircraft engaged in combat missions. However, nothing in the law bars the services from applying combat exclusions to units other than ships or aircraft, and all the services have done so. More important, the law does not define "combat mission." That task has been left to the discretion of DOD and the individual services, and how they define combat determines what jobs are closed to women.

Statutory restrictions on women in the U.S. military

  • Title 10, U.S.C. 6015 applies to the Navy and Marine Corps. It states:

    Women may not be assigned duty on vessels or in aircraft that are engaged in combat missions nor may they be assigned to other than temporary duty on vessels of the Navy except hospital ships, transports, and vessels of similar classification not expected to be assigned to combat missions.

    Since the Marine Corps is a part of the Department of Navy, it is required to adhere to the restrictions of Section 6015. In addition, Marine Corps policy prohibits the assignment of women Marines to any unit within which they would likely become engaged in direct combat operations with the enemy, or to any assignment that has been designated by the Secretary of the Navy as requiring "an armed combat trained Marine."
  • Title 10, U.S.C. 8549 applies to the Air Force. It states:

    Female members of the Air Force, except those designated under section 8067 of this title, or appointed with a view to designation under that section, may not be assigned to duty in aircraft engaged in combat missions. (The exceptions designated under Section 8067 are medical and dental professionals, and chaplains and other professionals.)
  • No statute restricts the assignment of women in the Army. The statute that covers the Army, Title 10, U.S.C. 3012, gives the Secretary of the Army authority to determine personnel policy for the Army. The Secretary of the Army has developed policies that exclude women from "routine engagement in direct combat." The Army justifies its exclusionary policies as being consistent with an implied Congressional intent (which is explicit in the Navy and Air Force exclusionary statutes).

Terms and Definitions

Close Combat
In 1978, in response to Congressional request, the Department of Defense defined "close combat" as "engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy's personnel, and a substantial risk of capture." The Army used this definition to determine the positions and branches that would be closed to Army women.
Direct Combat
In 1982, the Army expanded upon the definition of "close combat" and changed the terminology to "direct combat." Direct combat, a term used only by the Army, is defined as "engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy's personnel, and a substantial risk of capture. Direct combat takes place while closing with the enemy by fire, maneuver, or shock effect in order to destroy or capture, or while repelling assault by fire, close combat or counterattack."
Risk Rule
Developed in 1988 by a DOD Task Force on Women in the Military, the risk rule states that "risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture are proper criteria for closing noncombat positions or units to women, providing that the type, degree, and duration of such risks are equal to or greater than that experienced by combat units in the same theater of operations." This rule w,as developed in an attempt to standardize positions closed to women across services.
Direct Combat Probability Coding System (DCPC)
DCPC, instituted by the Army in 1983, is a classification system that evaluates every position in the Army based on the duties of the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) or Area of Concentration (AOC), and the unit's mission, tactical doctrine, and location on the battlefield. Each position is then coded based upon the probability of engaging in direct combat, with P1 representing the highest probability and P7 representing the lowest. Women are prohibited from positions that are coded P1. An entire MOS or AOC may also be closed to women if the number and/or grade distribution of positions coded Pl make progression/development in that career area impossible for women. DCPC is used only by the Army.
Combat Support
Combat support positions provide operational assistance to the combat arm. Examples include direct engineering (such as civil engineering) police, communications and intelligence support. Army and Air Force women are fully integrated in combat support roles and specialties; Marine Corps women are not. Navy women serve on selected "underway replenishment ships" of the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) that ferry supplies, fuel, and ammunition from port to the CLF ships that support the battle group. Navy policy precludes permanent assignment of women to CLF ships that sail with the battle group.
Combat Service Support
Combat service support positions provide logistical, technical, and administrative services--such as, for example, personnel and finance--to the combat arm. Military women in all branches serve in combat service support roles.


Women in the Military, 1980-1990 was prepared by Carolyn Becraft in June, 1990.


Davis, James A., Jennifer Lauby, and Paul B. Sheatsley. Americans View the Military: Public Opinion in 1982. Chicago, IL: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, April 1983.

Dusky, Lorraine. "Combat Ban Stops Women's Progress, Not Bullets." McCall's, May 1990.

Gal, Reuven. "The Israeli Female Soldier: Myth and Reality." Paper presented at the Inter-University Seminar International Conference, Chicago, IL, October 1987.

Landers, Robert K. "Should Women Be Allowed in Combat?" Congressional Quarterly's Editorial Research Reports, October 13, 1989.

McCullough, Mary B. "Company Commander Reports from Panama." Minerva Bulletin Board, Spring 1990.

Sciolino, Elaine. "Battle Lines are Shifting on Women in War." New York Times, January 25, 1990.

Takahiko, Ueda. "Limited Roles for Women Warriors." The Japan Times, May 28-June 3, 1990.

United States Coast Guard, Enlisted Personnel Division, 1989.

United States Department of Defense, Defense Manpower Data Center, 1989.

United States Department of Defense, Task Force on Women in the Military, January 1989.

Wood, Nicholas. "Women Ahoy! Sea Change Ahead for the Navy." London Times, December 11, 1990.

Last modified 2005-01-19 02:03 PM

Personal tools