Just 75 years ago today, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed, for the first time, women to serve as regular members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
In the years since, women have made huge advances in the U.S. armed forces. And in doing so have proven that those who worked to put the act in front of the president were right.
"Of course ... women have always stepped up to defend our country," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a commemorative event in the Pentagon June 12. "In our Revolutionary War, women operated behind enemy lines as spies. In the Civil War, some 3,000 women served as nurses for the Union Army. And during World War I, women were translators and accountants, and they operated switchboards."
In the audience at the event were four women veterans from World War II, including Marine Corps veteran Norma Rambow, who served as a field cook and in Marine mess halls; Army veteran Marion Marques, who served as a cryptographer and later a dental hygienist; Navy veteran Corrine Robinson, who served as a corpsman in the U.S. Naval Woman's Reserve; and Army veteran Hilary Rosado, who served as an imagery analyst.
"Let's thank all of these great Americans for their service once again," Austin said.
Following the WWII service of those women, and others like them, Austin said, U.S. military leaders began to endorse making women full and permanent members of the U.S. armed forces. It was a challenge, he said.
"At one hearing, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee questioned why women should serve in our military on the same basis as men," Austin said. "The first witness to respond was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. And he said, simply, 'We need them.'"
Austin said the U.S. military is the best fighting force in history, and that keeping it that way requires bringing the best warfighters on board in every domain of conflict.
"The only way to make that happen is by drawing on the talents of all of our people, and not just men — who happen to represent less than half of the U.S. population," he said.
Even more, Austin said, the military must be accommodating of women in service — and there is more work to be done, including the elimination of bias, sexual harassment and sexual assault. He also said military service must be made compatible with raising a family — for both mothers and fathers. All those things, he said, are priorities for the Department of Defense.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said today's anniversary serves as an opportunity to celebrate the talent, tenacity and expertise women have brought to the DOD mission. Women in the U.S. military today, she said, can serve in combat roles, become army rangers, fighter pilots, and four-star generals.
"Women in uniform continue to make history everyday, taking on roles and responsibilities that were not before possible or attainable," she said. "The full integration of women into our armed forces has only made our military stronger and our nation safer ... and more secure. And in addition to that, it moved the entire nation closer to the promise of full equality ... reinforced the power of unity around our shared values ... and underscored that we, as a nation, are more effective when we draw on the talents of qualified Americans willing to serve."
Like Austin, Hicks said despite 75 years of woman in the military, more must be done.
"It is our responsibility to break down even more barriers for all of us and for the generations to come," she said. "I, for one, am proud to help lead a department that continues to expand opportunities to women; one that is committed to advancing gender equity and equality; and one that acknowledges that the service and the sacrifice of all of those who serve in defense of this nation."