March is celebrated annually as Women’s History Month, a period during which we reflect on the contributions and successes of women throughout American history. Although until recently women were restricted from military service, they have no doubt supported the United States Armed Forces in a variety of roles since the beginning of our nation. More women are dedicating their lives to military service, thus highlighting an opportunity to better understand what the military woman’s experience looks like today. Military REACH connected with five active duty and Veteran women to gain insight into the experience of military women, including both the strengths and challenges of serving as a woman, and their perspectives on the future for women in the military.
What motivated you to join the Armed Forces?
Military service is not a career path chosen easily – service requires dedication, strength, and resilience. Still, there are many women who find pride in the challenge of becoming a “warrior.” For some, military service provides stability and opportunities to advance:
“The financial stability it provided and the education opportunity were the biggest driving factors for my enlistment and later commission.” – Adara, Marine Corps, Active Duty
For others, the motivation to serve is driven by military family or friend connections:
“Family business – 3rd generation military and 3rd generation dual military [family].” - Lee, Air Force Reserves, Active Duty/Veteran
“My friend’s dad was an Army helicopter pilot so I decided in 2nd grade I wanted to be a pilot in the military after trying on his helmet.” - Becky, Air Force, Veteran
“My next door neighbor was KIA in Iraq in 2008, and I wanted to honor his memory.” - Sarah Lynn, Air Force, Active Duty
How did your friends and family react to your decision to serve?
Although women who choose to serve are resolved in their decision, they may or may not get mixed feedback from their loved ones. Families and friends may show support for enlistment or commission when they have a prior connection to, or understanding of, military service:
“A lot [of my loved ones] felt like it was a good fit and modeled my earlier high school accomplishments within the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. A few others were somewhat surprised, not at my deciding to enlist, but my decision to join the Marine Corps.” – Adara
“At the onset, I don’t think a lot of my family thought that I was serious (I come from a traditional family and military service was a boy’s prerogative). Once they realized that I was serious, my family was very supportive. My friends were concerned that it wasn’t a safe job for a woman to have.” – Sarah Lynn
“[I was] fully supported – in fact my whole family was Navy enlisted, and I was encouraged to go officer in the Air Force.” – Lee
In some cases, however, women who choose to serve were even discouraged by those in their support network:
“I didn’t grow up in a military area and most people tried to talk me out of it. I was putting together models of airplanes and going to airshows, but people just thought it was cute. My 8th grade teacher gave me a D on a career assignment because I didn’t put any backup options after military pilot.” – Becky
Were there any service-related challenges you experienced that are unique to women in military service?
As history has shown, being a woman in the military is no easy task. In fact, as Becky suggests, there are “lots of [challenges].” One challenge mentioned by Lee is “balancing work and life,” as women must manage their roles at home (e.g., spouse, parent) and at work as a Service member. An additional challenge is facing gender-based issues. The ratio between men and women Service members is heavily skewed toward men, as approximately 1 in 16 active duty Service members are women:
“I do not know that I view it always as a challenge, but you often find yourself as the only woman in the room. I do not personally find that to be a challenge, but it is a common factor. Also, I am a shorter stature at five foot three inches and that is not the ideal load bearing body frame for carrying 100 pounds of gear. Overall, I always viewed myself as the same regarding going through all the mental and physical challenges as the males.” – Adara
“Generally, women’s uniforms are more difficult to find. Women’s health care is also an ongoing concern.” – Sarah Lynn
What are the advantages of being a woman Service member?
It is understandable that some women Service members don’t feel their identity as a woman is advantageous to their career in a male-dominated field. One woman Service member suggested that she works hard to meet the expectations of men Service members.
“Within the service, I do not believe there are any advantages [to being a woman Service member]. In fact, I would say it is much more challenging to be a woman in the service…However within the service, there are still unspoken barriers in some commands, positions, or jobs where you have to prove you are capable.” – Adara
However, another Service member reflects on the relationships she built with other military women during her service:
“The network of women supporting women is absolutely fantastic.” – Sarah Lynn
Although there are limitations within military service, some women Service members choose to focus on how their service will inspire the next generation of women in the military:
“You can inspire young girls. It’s important for kids to see someone who looks like them doing something they never thought about doing before. When I saw a female in a flight suit, I was speechless and couldn’t even talk to her because suddenly it was real- it was something that could actually happen.” - Becky
“Helping grow the next generation and showing our children that you can manage and wear many hats in the world.” -Lee
What changes do you hope to see in the future related to attitudes toward women Service members and Veterans?
Women have fought throughout history to be recognized for their contributions to our nation’s Armed Forces and their capabilities to serve in increasing ways. Still, women have much further to go before respect and equality is achieved for women Service members and Veterans. Women in the military have expressed several areas of concern for which they hope to see change:
“The biggest change I hope to see is acceptance within the Veteran community. There is deep tradition felt to uphold values and continue traditions. Within the Veteran population, many have no idea how much has changed and continues to change that in no way dishonors legacy and tradition; there is just a woman in uniform.” - Adara
“We’ve come a long way since I was starting in the military, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot more work to do. I’m encouraged when I see young women who are strong in who they are and aren’t afraid to use their voice. I felt grateful to be able do the things I did, but I think it’s time to stop feeling grateful and just be empowered.” - Becky
“As far as future changes related to attitudes toward women Service members and Veterans, I am afraid that will have to be changed and taught to every child at an early stage to treat, respect, and protect women equally. That includes equal pay for equal work, and punishment for disrespect. Women need to be able to speak up without retaliation.” -Connie
“We still see women underrepresented at all levels in the military. It’s still seen as an anomaly to see a female general, and we need to get to a point where that is no longer surprising. I hope to see more comprehensive medical coverage for female military members and more post-service support for female Veterans.” - Sarah Lynn
What advice would you give to women interested in joining the Armed Forces?
Having faced the gender-related challenges in military, women Service members and Veterans reflect on their careers to formulate advice to women considering entering service. Their testimonies offer both encouragement and career advice:
“Do it! Find one of the career choices that sounds interesting to you and go for it. Maybe you find something along the way that’s an even better fit. Either way, enjoy the ride! Also, failures truly make you stronger. If you don’t learn from it, it’s a wasted experience.” - Becky
“Go For It – find a supportive group of people who empower you and kick butt – you can do anything.” -Lee
“I would say be very familiar with the regulations and learn your job well so that you bring your best attributes to the mission set. Over time, professionalism makes every individual successful, but particularly for women in service that can still find themselves in the need-to-prove themselves situation. Lastly, aim to be within male physical fitness standards at each opportunity. There is no reason you can’t do it also.” - Adara
“Start building arm strength early, get to know the other women around you, and you can do anything you put your mind to!” - Sarah Lynn
Military REACH would like to give special thanks to Adara, Becky, Lee, Connie, and Sarah Lynn for sharing their stories and for their service to our country.