At her retirement Major General Jeanne Holm--Director of the WAF (1965-73) and Special Assistant to the President...


WOMEN IN THE MILITARY: An Unfinished Revolution

At her retirement Major General Jeanne Holm--Director of the WAF (1965-73) and Special Assistant to the President (1976-77)--was the highest ranking woman to have served in the US armed forces. Here, she provides the inside story largely missing from present-day accounts (viz. Helen Rogan's Mixed Company, 1981). Though the pre-WW I view is cursory indeed (Molly Pitcher, WW I nurses), from the 1940s onward Holm is on familiar ground, able to balance policy developments and statements with the service women's view of the situation. The women's auxiliary units--the WAACs, the WAVEs, the MCWRs (Marine Corps), and SPARs (Coast Guard)--were initially seen as a means of freeing men for active combat. The services were generally ill-prepared for this innovation, alternately assuming that women would fit the male pattern and treating them ""like immature girls in a boarding school away from home for the first time."" Though originally women were not supposed to see combat, many nurses and support workers did; their acceptance in battle zones, Holm remarks, ""hinged in large measure on whether the men perceived that the women were receiving equal or preferential treatment."" By the summer of 1945 there were ""nearly 100,000 WACs, 86,000 WAVEs, 18,000 Women Marines, 11,000 SPARs, plus 57,000 ""nurses in the Army and another 11,000 in the Navy. At war's end the move to disband these services was not opposed by women commanders, who were both ""worried over the possible long-term effects of women's attempts to adjust to the rigid male environment"" and ""all too familiar with the built-in intransigence of the military bureaucracy."" Male opponents feared the possibility of women commanding men. Thus, when the 1948 Women's Armed Services Act was finally passed, it included two percent ceilings on women's strength and grade ceilings on promotions. By the 1960s, unsurprisingly, women in the armed forces were seen merely as ""typewriter soldiers."" But the combination of the Vietnam War and the drive for women's rights fostered ""a new beginning."" Barriers to top-grade promotion were removed; women gained access to the service academies. Today, the big question is combat duty. Holm sensibly advocates recognition ""that the entire defense establishment is a combat organization,"" and flexibility in practice. Necessary history by one who should know--with lessons applicable to the current debate.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Presidio

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1982