In the military and criminal-justice fields, recent advances in technologies and techniques are now available to neutralize opponents’ advantages in individual size, weight and strength or collective force structures superior in number, weapon deployment and support systems. Putting gender aside, although our military forces today are only about a tenth the size of those marshaled for World War II, they are significantly more effective and lethal than their predecessors. Worth noting as well is the significant increase in women serving in risky combat roles, including line units, with no degradation in unit effectiveness.
The truth is, women have been closely involved in campaigning from the start. Until the early 20th Century, armies rarely moved without a host of followers in tow to perform the services and support to keep the troops going. Armies were like traveling cities, frequently with larger populations than the communities they captured and occupied. In such environments, the distinction between soldier and noncombatant was tenuous at best. Women with no formal requirement to engage in combat often handled combat roles.
Women Serving By The Numbers
In the United States, more than 2.5 million women have served in the armed forces since the American Revolution. This total does not include thousands more in the thick of conflicts throughout the colonies from the earliest settlements more than a century and a half before the Revolution began. Although American services did not give women permanent military status until 1948, many females served. At the extreme, some even concealed their genders so they could wear uniforms and fight. One woman who disguised herself suffered two wounds during the Revolution. Others did the same in the Civil War and the Indian Wars in the West. The Spanish-American War was the first conflict to engage women formally, when 1,500 contract nurses worked in military hospitals caring for wounded and ailing men. By 1945, more than 100,000 military nurses had served, and 400,000 other women performed many non-combat jobs in every theater of operations around the globe.
Today, nearly 15 percent of U.S. armed forces members are female, and about the same percentage of women are serving in Iraq. In part, the high ratio of military support specialties to combat slots is a reason for the growing percentage of women in the war zone. Counter-insurgency warfare also means that regardless of their jobs, women in combat theaters face higher risks than their predecessors did in the more conventional wars of the past, making it more likely that commanding officers will pin decorations for heroism on a combat veteran who happens to be female.
Women On The Beat
The experience of women in LE has paralleled those choosing military careers. Women first served as prison matrons in the 19th Century, to look after female offenders. Not until the first decade of the 20th Century did women begin performing regular LE duties in municipal PDs. This milestone was not, however, a major breakthrough. As late as 1970, two percent of the nation’s police officers were women. By 1991, the total had risen to nine percent. Today, women comprise about 14 percent of the country’s uniformed LE community, which includes about 18,000 organizations at local, state and federal levels and comprises some 800,000 personnel. Of interest is that the smallest proportion of women tends to serve in state-level agencies such as state police forces. Municipal and federal departments have hired more females, probably because they typically focus on broader investigative activities and support specialties. The FBI may lead the pack: One out of every five of its special agents is female.
Women in leadership roles in both the military and LE remain few in number. Although female chiefs of police, sheriffs, and agency heads are serving in several large cities and smaller communities, they constitute only about one percent of senior LE officials. Among general and flag officers in the armed forces, only a handful currently serve, and most do not lead major commands.
While they have made tremendous progress in the decades since World War II, women clearly lag behind other leaders and members of the uniformed communities who represent ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. Many more decades will pass before half of all armed forces and LE employees are women, replicating the proportion of females in the nation’s population. Of course practical factors such as personal interest, pay and benefits, job availability and promotion opportunities affect women’s career choices, but societal expectations and stereotypes have continued to limit the growth of women in these professions.
Traditional Roles Rapidly Changing
Few Americans, could have conceived even 20 years ago that a woman or an Afro-American could be a viable candidate for President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces in January 2009.
As women continue to join military services and LE agencies, they are likely to achieve a critical mass that signals society has fully accepted the idea that females not only can serve as well as men in these occupations, but they have every right to serve in any capacity they choose.
The probability is strong that in another generation or two, the notion of women in uniform, performing the same tasks as men will become completely routine,much the same as we have learned that religious preference, ethnic heritage, race, socioeconomic background and other similar factors are incidental to the fundamental truth that we all are essentially the same—human beings who mix strength, courage and generosity with frailty and faults throughout our lives.
In the not-too-distant future then, America almost certainly will wage the last campaign against inequality and decide that gender in the uniformed professions is no big deal.