On 14 July 2021 something extraordinary happened in military history. Of the 300 sailors attempting to earn the Navy Special Warfare pin, one of the successful graduates was a woman. She is the first woman to successfully complete the intensive 37-week Naval Special Warfare training course and receive the honored pin (The Associated Press, 2021). This woman, whose identity is protected by the DoD, is one of only 18 women who have attempted the training program. She now joins the ranks of trailblazing women in the military, along with the soldier who became the first female Green Beret in the Army last year. There are also two women in the Navy Special Forces training pipeline, and two women in the Air Force Special Warfare training pipeline as well. Although nine women have attempted the Marine Corps Special Operations training, none have yet graduated (The Associated Press, 2021). These women are all remarkable for their achievements and even to be selected for these schools given that prior to 2015 these billets were not open to women. To give a slightly bigger historical context, the Army established the Nurse Corps in 1901, and the first female enlisted woman, Loretta P. Walsh, was sworn in the Navy on 21 March 1917 as a recruiter among other duties (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report, 2021). In their 120 years of official military service, servicewomen have come a long way from being restricted to nursing and clerical roles to having all combat roles open to them and qualifying for special forces.
Much of the progress made for servicewomen across all branches can be attributed to recommendations form the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service or DACOWITS. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the DACOWITS. In preparation of this milestone anniversary, the 2020 DACOWITS report includes a detailed historical review of the committees influence from 1951- present (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report, 2021). A wonderful synopsis of the history of women in the military unfolds through the report. It begins with an overview of the unofficial roles that women played in U.S. conflicts prior to the formation of the Army Nurse Corps dating back to the Revolutionary War, where they provided battlefield services “as nurses, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, and water bearers (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report, 2021, p. 92).” The review notes that there were an estimated 6000 women with the military during the Civil War and at least 1,500 participating with the Spanish American War. It was this last conflict that prompted the formation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, followed seven years later by the Navy Nurse Corps. Loretta P. Walsh, our country’s first enlisted woman, was followed in 1918 by Opha May Johnson, who was the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps. By the end of World War I, 35,000 women had joined the military, with 400 female casualties. That number jumped to 400,000 women serving in World War II and today there are over 200,000 women serving on active duty each year. Yet, service for the modern servicewoman looks very different than it did at the end of WWII and even the Korean War, when the DACOWITS committee was formed. At that time, women could comprise only 2% of the total military forces, and only 10% of those women were allowed to be officers. Additionally, women were not allowed on aircraft or ships and could not serve in combat. Furthermore, pregnant women or women with children were discharged from service. It wasn’t until 1975 that the involuntary separation of women with children or pregnancies was ended after a DACOWITS recommendation (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report, 2021).
Over the past 70 years DACOWITS has made over 1000 recommendations to the Secretary of Defense addressing dozens of issues for servicewomen. Of the 1062 recommendations made by the committee between 1967 and 2020, 97% of them have been fully or partially implemented by the DoD. That is a remarkable influence on the life and careers of America’s service women for equality in the military. Anyone interested in military history should definitely read the 2020 report for an excellent overview of women’s experience in the American military. To give a brief summary of their 1000+ recommendations the report breaks them down into themes and subthemes. The main themes are Benefits and Entitlements; Career Progression; Communication and/or Dissemination; Education and/or Training; Family Support; Gender Equality and Integration; Reserve and Guard Components; Internal to DACOWITS; Marketing and Recruitment; Retention; Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault; Unit Culture and Morale; and Women’s Health and Wellbeing.
Interestingly, the periods that our nation has been at war, notably the 1970s and 2000s, have seen the highest number of recommendations from the committee, at 283 and 267 in those respective decades, followed by 157 in the 2010s, as the decade with the next highest number. It’s no coincidence that periods of war have highlighted the need for improved conditions, better access to properly fitting military gear, improved women’s healthcare, and family care. These are periods where the need for qualified citizens to serve in our all-volunteer military have brought particular focus and attention to the importance of women as warfighters and of the invaluable service of our female military members. During each of these significant periods since 1951, DACOWITS has been on the ground, visiting military installations around the world and interviewing service members to identify their needs and make timely recommendations that improved the lives and careers of both the men and women in the American military (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report, 2021).
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Libby Parins, Psy.D., is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP). Dr. Parins has worked at CDP since 2007, serving in many different capacities including as a faculty member on APA-accredited psychology internship programs, and as a project developer and trainer in military and civilian programs. She began her professional career as a Naval Officer where she served in San Diego, California and Bremerton, Washington as a psychologist
Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2020 Annual Report (2021). Retrieved July 2021, from DACOWITS 2020 Annual Report WEB.pdf: https://dacowits.defense.gov/Portals/48/Documents/Reports/2020/Annual%20Report/DACOWITS%202020%20Annual%20Report%20WEB.pdf?ver=SC_TG6frXqkyw5p7poVWIw%3D%3D
The Associated Press. (2021, July 15). First woman completes Navy special warfare training. Retrieved from NBCnews.com: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/first-woman-completes-navy-special-warfare-training-n1274125