Army Women

A look at the life, the sentiments, and the aspirations—including, for some, combat—of women in the U.S. Army, the vanguard service insofar as the role of women in the military is concerned.

I flew down to Panama shortly after the invasion and, with the Army's permission, talked to scores of soldiers and investigated their living conditions. The enlistment motivations of the men and women I spoke to differed in important respects. For the typical male, economic realities were predominant. Most admitted to having seen few job opportunities in civilian life. The decision to enlist was usually supported by family and friends. For many of the men, joining the Army seemed to be the path of least resistance. The women soldiers were much more likely to have entered the military for noneconomic reasons. They also seemed to be more independent and adventurous than the men. Often they had not received much encouragement from their parents to join the service. Many of the men, and even more of the women, were attracted by the Army's post-service educational benefits. For the women, joining the Army was the result of a decision to "do something different" and get away from a "boring" existence in some backwater community.

Sitting on her bunk in an extremely hot and stuffy room in an old PDF barracks, one female Private First Class told a not unusual story: "I worked for a while right after high school and then went to a community college. But with working so much, I couldn't be a real student. I quit school and worked as a waitress at a Denny's. I woke up one day and realized I wasn't going anywhere. There had to be more to life than this. I was afraid I would end up marrying some jerk. The Army offered me a GI Bill and a chance to do something different. My mother cried when I told her I was going to join the Army. But I did it anyway and I'm glad. I won't stay in, but I've seen and done a lot more things than my friends back home."

Many of the women had spent time on field maneuvers, living in tents. Since most of the women were assigned to combat-support functions, they were often able to live in large general-purpose tents. Work sections sleep together in one tent during field exercises whenever possible. This is true whether sections are male-only or mixed-sex. Women drape blankets over a rope between the main tent poles to gain some privacy, although someone on the other side can easily peer over the top. In mixed-sex tents the men generally display some regard for privacy, although not always as much as the women would like. Most of the women sleep in gym clothes or their BDUs (battle dress uniforms), as fatigues are now called. Others become acrobats and manage to change clothes inside their sleeping bags. Almost all the women said they would prefer to sleep in a mixed-sex tent with workmates rather than in a female-only tent with strangers.

Personal cleanliness and hygiene are of much greater concern to women than to men in the field. Even under the tense, busy circumstances of Panama, the women tried to bathe once a day. One young female soldier insisted (wrongly) to me that Army regulations guarantee women a shower at least once every three days. How to wash became almost an obsession for women in the field. One method was to post a guard outside a tent and take a "bird bath," using a can of hot water. One unit moved garbage cans inside the tent for the women to use as stand-up bathtubs. When outside shower facilities were all that was available, women often showered in their BDUs. Female soldiers are expected to plan ahead and provide their own sanitary napkins or tampons. In Panama tampons had to be drawn from the medical-supply system rather than the regular quartermaster system. This created problems for some women in the early days of the invasion. But once life began to return to normal, tampons (and women's underwear) could be readily bought at the post exchange. All in all, menstruation did not seem to worry the female soldiers I spoke with, and it was never invoked as an excuse for absence from work.

Sexual harassment is one of the issues most frequently discussed by women in the military. Enlisted women and female officers differ on this matter in important ways. Enlisted women, like most men of any rank, define sexual harassment mainly in terms of sexual propositions and actual touching. One female sergeant put it this way: "Sexual harassment is making unwelcome advances the second time." Enlisted women also tend to see sexual harassment in almost fatalistic terms, something that "goes with the territory" and is often brought on by the behavior of the woman. But they do not consider every advance to be harassment. Fraternization between men and women among enlisted personnel in the Army (and among Army officers) is as common as it is among students at a coeducational college, and is accepted as normal if it occurs among soldiers (or officers) of the same rank. Most women soldiers who have boyfriends have boyfriends who are soldiers, and the women who are married are far more likely to be married to soldiers than married male soldiers are.

Female officers understand sexual harassment in much broader terms, to include sexist remarks, sex-based definitions of suitable work, the combat-exclusion rule, and so on. Women officers see sexism in the military as something that requires constant vigilance. One lieutenant told me that she found it a "welcome challenge to deal with male chauvinists on a daily basis."

Another form of sexual harassment was mentioned by the enlisted women: approaches from lesbians. The true incidence of lesbianism (and of male homosexuality) in the military is unknown. There are indications that lesbianism is more widespread in the armed forces than is male homosexuality. Defense Department statistics, whether they reflect selective prosecution or not, show that women are discharged for lesbianism almost ten times as often, proportionately, as men are discharged for homosexuality. Accounts of lesbianism were offered spontaneously in most of my extended interviews with female soldiers. My general impression was that lesbianism causes much less alarm among women soldiers than homosexuality does among the men. Whereas male soldiers expressed disdain for homosexuals with sardonic humor if not threats of violence, the women were more likely to espouse an attitude of live and let live.

That enlisted women must face being characterized by many men in the military as either loose or lesbian is an unfortunate reality. These attitudes decline markedly when men and women work together over the long term. Such situations also seem eventually to bring out the best in the men. But sex-related issues by no means pervade the everyday existence of female soldiers. The most common topics of concern and conversation, for both sexes, appear to have little to do with sex. They have to do with the work of the Army and with the good and bad of military life.


The Army's noncommissioned officers inhabit the middle ground between the enlisted ranks and the officer corps. If women sometimes occupy an ambiguous position within the military, female NCOs occupy the most ambiguous position of all. One reason is that there are not many of them: only four percent of all senior sergeants are women.

One Sergeant First Class I interviewed, a personnel specialist, joined the Army in 1972. She told me, "I wanted to see the world, and I sure have—Korea, Germany; and now Panama. I was glad to see the WACs go. There were too many cliques and too much politics. The real problem now is that the female NCO is never taken as seriously as the male. Every time we are reassigned to a new unit, we have to prove ourselves all over again. Our credentials aren't portable like the men's."

Like many female NCOs, this woman admits to having few close friends in the military. "If you get too close to the men, they think you're having an affair. If you hang around with women, they think you're a lesbian. Let's face it, you can't really be one of the boys. The kind of insults men throw at each other a woman can't do, unless she wants to cross an invisible line of respect." The sergeant finally brought up the matter of marriage, which weighs heavily with female careerists in the Army: "I never married," she said, "because I just couldn't think of having children and making a go of an Army career." Only 60 percent of female senior NCOs are married, and of those only half have children. A military career works powerfully on military women to keep them single and childless.

Above the rank of noncommissioned officers in the Army is the officer corps, where today one lieutenant in six is female—but only one colonel in thirty. Only three of the Army's 407 general officers are women. Women officers feel the same pressures not to marry or raise children that female NCOs do—pressures that male soldiers do not feel. Many women officers believe that the demands of an Army career preclude having children, and they leave the service. Others make the Army a career, deciding to stay childless. A female helicopter pilot told me, "Having no children is the sacrifice I make to keep flying." In 1989 among male senior officers 94 percent were married, and 90 percent of these had children; among female senior officers only 51 percent were married, and only half of these had children.

A small but growing group of junior female officers, however, seems to have devised a form of planned parenthood that can accommodate both family and career. It works like this. First, aim to be a company commander, an important "ticket to be punched" on the way up the promotion ladder. Company commanders are usually captains with six or seven years in service, people in their late twenties. Company command is a high-pressure job, but it is often followed by a slack time, such as an assignment to an ROTC position or a staff job in a headquarters command. Women officers are coming to regard this period as the most opportune to have a child.

Almost all junior officers today are commissioned right after college. This contrasts with the biographies of today's senior women officers, who entered as WACs, often after some work experience. Brigadier General Evelyn "Pat" Foote, who was one of the Army's most senior women officers when she retired, last year, was well known in the military for being an outstanding and confident professional officer who spoke her mind. She joined the Army at age thirty after a string of white-collar jobs in which, she told me, she always seemed to be "somebody's girl Friday." In her nearly three decades in the Army, Foote served as the commander of a WAC company, as a public-affairs officer in Vietnam, as a faculty member at the Army War College, and as the commander of the Military Police Group in Mannheim, West Germany. She concluded her career as the commanding general of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She has never married.

Foote espouses a philosophy that is embraced by most senior women officers, at least in private. They hope for a future that harks back to an era when women soldiers, in the main, were unmarried, had no children and few outside distractions, and were more committed to military service than their male counterparts. By now, of course, this is simply too much to expect of female career soldiers.

Foote recognizes that many Army women have been able to combine a military career, marriage, and children. She is adamant that there is little place in the Army for single pregnant women and single mothers. Certainly having pregnant soldiers in deployable units is "the height of folly." In 1988 eight percent of the total female enlisted force bore children; some 15 percent of all enlisted Army women are single parents. Before 1975 pregnant women were routinely discharged from the Army. Today, although pregnant women are ineligible for enlistment, they can remain in the Army if already enlisted. No one knows for sure, but informed sources believe that about a third of pregnant soldiers elect to have their babies and stay in the Army; the women are granted a six-week maternity leave. Another third have abortions and remain in the Army. The remainder leave the service after delivery.

Foote would "feel comfortable" with a rule that expelled pregnant women but allowed waivers on a case-by-case basis. She also notes the problem of pregnant women who carry on too long with their duties to the detriment of themselves and their babies. Single parents too often present "an untenable mess," Foote says. "Anyone, male or female, who can't perform their mission has no place in the Army." She ruefully notes that female officers were never consulted on the changes that allowed pregnant women and single parents to remain in the Army. The "male hierarchy caved in to so-called liberals without thinking what this would mean for Army readiness."

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