Ladies and Soldiers Both: Creating Social Space for Women in the US Armed Forces*

*I gave this presentation at the 2022 Annual Meeting for the Society of Military History in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 30, 2022. The text is more formal than the actual presentation 

          This paper is the first step in my next major project. For today’s purposes, I have considered recruiting brochures from the USMC published in the early 1960s. I am currently considering what the end point of the project should be. I am leaning toward ending it when the military was fully gender integrated in the 1950s, though I am also considering the beginning of the All-Volunteer Force as my end point. I also have brochures published in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  As to why I’m working with USMC only at this point – Covid-19. Many of the archives I want to visit have only recently reopened, so I am working with what I have. I hope to be in the archives in the fall but given how many times I’ve said that over the last 2 years, I’m not holding my breath.

            These brochures offer a unique insight into contemporaneous changes in gender in the military. I have been calling it military femininity – a counterpoint, or perhaps counterbalance, to military masculinity. Military service has long been a route to manhood in the US – a point made explicit in a Navy recruiting poster for men in World War II titled “Healthy Bodies, Active Minds.” The poster showed before and after pictures of enrollees, highlighting their increased weight and muscle mass, as well as their improved posture. The poster text began with the explicit claim that “Men build the NAVY…the NAVY builds Men!”[1] With the arrival of women, the military could not sell itself as a man-making institution without complication. After the war, the impetus to maintain the women’s auxiliaries and later to fully integrate all genders into the military forced a reckoning I am not sure anyone was prepared for.

Manhood is something to be achieved, to be earned through appropriate strenuous activity. Military service fills this purpose, and by World War II, participation was becoming the key to successful military service. Womanhood is something to be protected and preserved – women are granted womanhood by reaching adulthood, rather than through any actions of their own. Military service would actually harm womanhood if it remained only a man-making institution.

I believe that the rhetoric changes in the mid-20th century to making citizens and “true” or “real” Americans instead of making men. Making citizens or making “real” Americans is not necessarily tied to gender, even though the military’s method of making citizens or “real” Americans was still based in earlier, single-gendered military structures and traditions. Recruiting material focuses on the benefits, as always, but over the course of a few decades, dating and marriage rules become less prominent in the recruiting material. World War II materials discussed marriage rules – who could the women date, what married women would be accepted, what happened if a service member married – because these were significant issues for women considering enrollment.

            Booklets and brochures hold a unique space in recruiting materials, as one of the few items designed for an already-interested audience. These brochures no longer have to do the work of explaining what the service is, or why women should join. Instead, it focuses on why the woman who is deciding which branch to join should select their branch.

In the 1950s and 1960s, brochures were much more finely targeted. The perceived audience was career-oriented women who were interested in a military career. Service was still important, participation was still important, but without the external pressure of a global war, there was little perceived need for a large complement of women soldiers. That is to say, it seems recruiters and procurement divisions in the 1950s and 1960s did not believe women were vital to the success of their mission, and that they could afford to be choosier.

When women responded to general recruiting advertisements advising them to contact the local recruiting station for more information, they were sent these recruiting brochures. Brochures were kept in recruiting offices and distributed, sometimes to people who stopped in out of curiosity, sometimes to women who made an appointment and then wanted to leave to think enlisting over before making a final choice. These were never intended for mass distribution. They were targeted to a specific audience, one that was already interested in joining the military.

Booklet text started from the assumption that there were many reasons women wanted to join the military, and so attempted to address the questions that were driven by those motivations. Each brochure addressed pay scales, work assignments, uniforms, leisure activities, and emphasized that the women were expressing ideal patriotism by joining the military.

The mid-century brochures are fascinating. Here, we can track changing ideas of what it is to be a “real” woman (that is, properly feminine) in the military. The women in these brochures are both highly fashionable civilians and smartly turned-out military women. The two mid-century brochures covered in this brief analysis both use illustrations rather than photographs. Even when in uniform their hair styled in the most modern fashion, and illustrations of leisure time depict the people in up-to-the-minute civilian fashions. Clearly, military women were feminine and modern at the same time.

An argument could be made that modernity becomes the key to femininity in the 1950s. Military femininity is brand new in the 1950s. As legislation changes to include women’s corps in the branches, as women become more entrenched in military culture, a clear shift occurs in how women are perceived. Many still fear that women in the military are all lesbians, or “mannish” – or that so-called “normal” women will be turned into lesbians during their time in the military. Whether this feared conversion to lesbianism in the military is a result of the extreme manliness inherent in military service or if the normal girls are being seduced by dangerous lesbians is never clearly stated. However, since recruiters are unable to raise the possibility of lesbians in the military without their enrollment numbers tanking, they focus instead on the feminine aspects of military service. Or at least, they focus on feminine activities women are able to participate in during their military service.

“The Woman Marine” and “The Woman Officer” were companion booklets produced sometime between 1966 and 1972, though I am inclined to place them between 1966 and 1968. These two booklets focus on the benefits available to women who join the Marine Corps. Both booklets were designed for women who had already expressed an interest in joining the Marine Corps, and so did not spend time explaining the benefits of military service. Instead, they focused on the benefits of Marinehood.

“The Woman Marine,” for women looking to enroll as enlisted Marines, focused on the experience of being a Marine more than anything else. While pay, possible work assignments, travel and educational opportunities were all discussed, the language repeatedly returned to being a Marine as the most important and significant part of the experience. The booklet spends half its space on the boot camp experience, showing illustrations of various activities, culminating in graduation with the exclamation “you are a MARINE!”[2] After this moment, the newly minted Marine can go on to specialist schools, travel, and socialize with other Marines.

“The Woman Officer,” for women with some college education who are interested in commissioning as officers, showed women as business executives. College women between 18 and 21 could sign up for the Woman Officer Candidate Courses, and women who were 21 could then take the Woman Officer Basic Course. This is the only point in the booklet where initial training is discussed – the story immediately jumps to graduation and the possibility of specialist schools. Perhaps this reflects a class divide between prospects. It might also reflect assumptions within the Procurement Division officers that women who wished to be officers would not be enticed by the excitement of boot camp, as enlisted enrollees might be. If this is the case, understanding this assumption will be an important part of the research process.

Differences between officers and enlisted are long standing, and class-based assumptions about where certain prospects would best fit are equally long standing. The fascinating part of the conversation these two booklets create is how they reflect gender-based assumptions about their audiences of prospects. Both booklets address what the writers perceive to be women’s concerns. And, while I still don’t know who wrote the copy for these booklets, I will bet dollars to donuts they were written by men.

“The Woman Marine” spends a few pages on the experience of boot camp and of becoming a Marine, but also recognizes that the prospects reading the booklet are women. Using illustrations, women are depicted doing calisthenics, getting their uniform skirt measured by a tailor, lining up for chow, sitting in a classroom, and sleeping in a bunk. Yet all of these activities are described as women’s activities, rather than Marine activities.  

“Physical training” shows the women stretching to the side in a gymnasium – not the confidence course or strenuous runs we will see in later publications. “Painstaking fitting of your new uniforms” is important, given the struggles the women’s Reserve faced with uniform regulations and production in the 1950s, but that is not information a prospect would have. “Good food in the mess hall (and a salad line for weight watchers).” At this point, I wondered if the writers even spoke to any women while preparing this booklet.[3]

The odd emphasis on stereotypical women’s activities and preferences continued on the following page, where prospects were told they would be able to go home after graduation from boot camp and “model your Mainbocher-designed uniforms for your friends.”[4] This booklet is particularly focused on how the prospect will look when they are a Marine – there’s an undercurrent that the women will become more attractive when they are Marines.

Despite this odd fixation on women’s appearances – to the point of using the poise and grooming class as the illustration for the classes women would take at boot camp – the booklet emphasizes much more variety in jobs available to enlisted women. World War II recruiting materials for the USMC Women’s Reserve often emphasized that women would work in exciting fields, especially aviation. Women Marines were being funneled into administrative work, but aviation was still a prominent possibility: “Cameras, cash registers, computers, typewriters, radar scopes…all tools used in jobs open to Women Marines. Today’s expanded spectrum of opportunity includes such areas as personnel, communications, data processing, supply, intelligence, logistics, aviation and public relations…and these are but a few of many.”[5]

“The Woman Officer,” with its interesting construction of the woman officer as “The modern woman executive of an honored military organization,” seemed to address an audience of career-minded women. In the mid-1960s, this would have been a reasonable assumption about women attending college. The booklet emphasized the status of officers – something civilians might not have readily understood. Yet the framing as an executive is striking: “Whatever the training or the job, the new life ahead offers an exciting prospect for the Woman Marine executive. Enjoying the status and privilege of her rank…accepting the responsibility that accompanies it, she moves in an ordered but creative atmosphere – one guaranteed to stimulate and reward.”[6]

Aviation moved out of the starring role in “The Woman Officer,” listed second of four possible types of work. The officer is pictured as an air traffic controller, but the text focuses instead on where the women would be assigned. The other three highlighted fields (in order) are administrative work, public relations, and merchandising.  The language, illustrations, and choices for what is highlighted all shy away from the unglamorous aspects of life in the Marine Corps. Work outside the United States was barely mentioned; rather, the text focused on vacation days and the ability to fly on military planes when there was a seat available.[7]

In contrast, equal pay for equal rank is explicitly confirmed in the section on possible jobs, and it’s made clear that women officers will earn more than many of their civilian counterparts in corporate offices: “Since the salary of a Woman Marine Officer equals that of her male counterpart, she has an enviable advantage over many female contemporaries.”[8]

The idea of a Marine officer as an equivalent to the civilian corporate executive is an interesting angle on recruiting and indicates that the creators of this booklet felt that their audience of prospects was made up of ambitious and driven women who were interested in their personal advancement.

Both booklets highlighted the educational benefits available to prospects – either attending college for the first time for enlisted women, continuing a partially completed college education for officer prospects, or even attending graduate school to earn a Master’s degree or PhD. In both booklets, the educational benefits are toward the end – page 15 of 18 in “The Woman Officer” and page 10 of 18 in “The Woman Marine.”

Both booklets also highlighted the social possibilities for prospects. “The Woman Marine” told prospects that “As long as you’re a Woman Marine, you’ll never find yourself among strangers. Your fellow Marines and their friends are a good crowd…your kind of people. Off duty, wear what you like, go where you please…see a good movie, splurge and buy a hat, drag your date to a Chinese restaurant.”[9] The emphasis was on having fun in unrestrained and slightly exotic public locations, and the illustration showed a group of three couples dancing and laughing under a paper lantern with Chinese characters on it.

“The Woman Officer” expected its readers to be focused on creating their own home and social life. Instead of going out to have a raucous good time with fellow Marines, these women could “enjoy the full degree of independence to which successful business women are accustomed. Private quarters provided on Marine bases are modern, comfortable and may be decorated as desired. When the woman officer lives off the base, a housing allowance is provided and she is free to choose her own dwelling.” The illustration showed a woman lighting candles on a table as people chatted in the background, evoking a home dinner party.[10] The differences between the two types of fun also indicates an assumption about who the prospects for each group were.

This very preliminary study already shows the assumptions behind the recruiting materials produced in the mid-century. Because what they highlight reflects what planners, leaders, and creators think will entice women, we can gain understanding about how they expected women to fit into their outfit. We can already see that leaders were dividing women along class lines, highlighting different benefits for officers and enlisted. Education and pay were still important, but the framing of the woman officer as an “executive” shows some of those classed assumptions. Yet they still believe women to be interested in “feminine” things – pretty uniforms and dating and marriage prospects, even the belief that some women would be dieting while at boot camp. Further research into recruiting materials, the workings of procurement and training divisions, and physical spaces for women on military installations is necessary to fully understand where women fit in the military in the mid-century.

[1] “Healthy Bodies, Active Minds,” [Electronic Record] 17-0631M, Local ID 44-PA-20, Records of the Office of Government Reports, 1932-1947, Record Group 44 (RG 44), World War II Posters, 1942-1945 series, NACP.

[2] “The Woman Marine,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 5.

[3] “The Woman Marine,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 3-4, Publications (3 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[4] “The Woman Marine,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 6, Publications (3 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[5] “The Woman Marine,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 7-8, Publications (3 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[6] “The Woman Officer,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 6, Publications (1 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[7] “The Woman Officer,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 7-10, 15-16, Publications (1 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[8] “The Woman Officer,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 11, Publications (1 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[9] “The Woman Marine,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 11, Publications (1 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

[10] “The Woman Officer,” booklet (Quantico: United States Marine Corps Procurement Division, 1966-72), 11, Publications (1 of 3), Women Marines collection, History Division, Marine Corps University.

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