THIRTY YEARS AGO, when Congress was holding hearings on legislation to permit women to serve in the regular armed forces, Rep. Carl Vinson remarked, "I do not think a ship is a proper place for them to serve." Out of his comments that day, with no other recorded discussion, grew the law that has barred the Navy's female officers and enlisted personnel from going to sea except on hospital and transport ships. The Navy, which now wants to assign women to some of its other ships, has been trying to get Congress to rewrite that provision. There is need for more than just a rewriting now. Federal Judge John J. Sirica ruled on Thursday that the law is unconstitutional because it irrationally closes off to all female sailors many of the job-training and advancement opportunities that are available to all male sailors.
The judge's decision does not require the Navy to assign women immediately to all or any of its ships. It leaves specific assignments to the discretion of the Navy's leaders, limited only by the directive that individual ability, not sex, should be the principal factor on which those assignments are made. Even that is qualified by an indication from Judge Sirica that the Navy, or Congress, may have power to refuse to assign women to combat ships or to specific kinds of noncombat positions.
The legislation the Navy has been seeking from Congress is more limited than the judge's decision. It would continue to bar women from combat missions or from other than temporary duty assignments on ships that might be assigned to combat. Rather than consider that proposal further, Congress should take its cue from Judge Sirica's directive and revise the laws that govern all of the nation's armed forces so that the military can use all of its personnel in the jobs for which they are best fitted, regardless of their sex.
The need for such a change is spelled out in both the evidence presented to Judge Sirica in this case and the evidence presented to Congress by the Defense Department to justify the more limited change the Navy is seeking. The government is having trouble recruiting enough well-qualified males to fill all the jobs in combat units, and it has a surplus of well-qualified females. It has discovered that female volunteers on the average are brighter than their male counterparts, test higher in areas used to predict military success, are cheaper to recruit and, if treated equally, will stay in the service longer. One study concludes, "Indeed, whether this nation can sustain its armed forces solely by volunteer means could well depend on how effectively the female labor resource is employed."
By striking down the old law, Judge Sirica has given the military establishment and Congress a chance to solve two problems at once. They can improve the quality of military units - in the Navy and elsewhere - and meet the demands of female personnel for equal treatment by simply adopting the rule that military assignments are to be made solely on the basis of ability to do a particularly job - wherever it may be. The idea that a ship is not a "proper place" for women to serve is not only old but also unconstitutional and unwise.