After a decade of dramatic escalation in the military role of American women, armed services officials under the Reagan administration are calling a halt.
Although years of studies under the Carter administration emphasized the positive contributions of female soldiers, the new conservative administration is focusing on complaints from field commanders about the negative effects of women on the nation's combat readiness.
Without fanfare, the volunteer Army has ordered what it calls a "pause" in its recruitment of women. Its leaders, backed up by the other services, have persuaded defense officials to reassess the whole impace of women in the military.
Past female recruiting goals "were based largely on theoretical models," said Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower. "What's happened is now we have some experience. I think it's an appropriate time, at the beginning of an administration, when you're having a force expansion, changing doctrine, to take a look and say, okay, let's stop" and see if those models should be changed.
The proportion of women in all the services will probably be leveled out at 10 to 12 percent, or it could be lower, Korb predicted. Their numbers have soared since 1971 from just 1 percent to 8 percent, and recruiting goals had called for 12 percent by 1985, or 250,000 women altogether.
"Just what I've picked up from talking to people in the field [is] that maybe we were a little bit too eager, and [doing] a little too much, maybe, wishful thinking," he said. Also, "I just don't think our society will ever want to have women in front-line combat, and as long as you don't have that, you're really sort of limited as to the jobs that you can give them."
The new climate has aroused concern among those who favor an increased role for women. They not only fear setbacks in the progress made by women, they said, but are concerned that limits on female recruitment will lead indirectly to a return to a peace-time draft.
"I think that's the hidden agenda," said Jeanne M. Holm, a retired Air Force major general who is on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. "There are certainly members of Congress and those in the defense community who'd like that."
At a time when the eligible pool of males is declining and the need for high-technology skills is increasing, the all-volunteer Army might have trouble filling its needs if the recruitment of women is limited, according to Holm and others.
Korb said he had no such intent and that, in any case, the Army currently has less of a "quality problem" in its recruiting than in the past. Last year only 37 percent of the recruits had a high school education, he noted, but this year that figure has risen to 60 percent. "We are rejecting people we would have taken a year ago, [although] we might have a problem if the economy gets better" because of more job opportunities for potential recruits.
No way we would ever leave a spot vacant rather than taking a woman," Korb said.
"To the extent that a women gives you more than a man or is better than having nobody in a position, then obviously that contributes to combat readiness. But where you can get a man and a woman, and the man, because of certain physical characteristics, gives you more, and maybe the intellectual ability is the same, then maybe you can increase combat readiness by taking the man."
Pregnancy, single parenthood, a costly attrition rate, urinary tract infections under primitive field conditions, and insufficient upper-body strength are among the problem areas listed by Maj. Gen. Robert Lewis (Sam) Wetzel, who is heading the Army's review of current policies regarding women and plans to make recommendations by the end of this year. Wetzel has first-hand experience, most recently as commander of the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division stationed in West Germany, whose 17,000 soldiers included 1,000 females.
Women have surged into virtually every kind of job except those strictly combat functions which are off-limits to the, such as infantry and tanks. About half of all enlisted women now serve in jobs not previously given to women -- jobs which, at least in the Army, will take them virtually throughout the battlefield in a war, Wetzel said. For instance, women are assigned to combat support duties such as maintenance of equipment, communications, electronic warfare, medical units, supply trucks and certain artillery units.
The female invastion has in many cases outstripped the ability of the military to provide housing, uniforms, family policies, adjustment of the male ranks to their presence socially, and a whole range of other needs, Wetzel said. Commanders in the field are grappling daily with questions large and samll for which the military has offered only poor answers.
Which woman gets priority for her children in an overcrowded day care center -- the working wife of an enlisted man or the female soldier, Wetzel asked rhetorically. "The answer right now, nobody. There's a waiting list." a
Between 8 and 10 percent of the enlisted women are pregnant at any one time, he said. How much time do they lose from the job, and how does that compare with the time-loss figures for men due to drug or alcohol problems?
Is it possible to work out a lifting strength test -- for men as well as women -- to be included in the entrance physical for medical corps personnel who have to life heavy, limp wounded men on stretchers repeatedly over long periods, and for other such physically taxing jobs?
Some of the problems are related to social changes involving both men and women, such as the increasing tendency for soldiers to be married and live in scattered quarters, rather than all together in the barracks. This is seen as a "degradation of readiness," Wetzel said. "It slows deployment, increases reaction time."
There is a lot of "blame-the-victim mentality" in the negative signals regarding the prospects of women in the military, according to Kathleen Carpenter, an attorney who was assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity in the Carter administration.
These young women -- suddenly isolated in a strange environment, lacking role models -- are experiencing problems similar to those suffered by blacks as they were gradually integrated into the military, she said, but most of these problems eitgher are soluble or are balanced by advantages in other areas. Some are due to poor planning or ignorance.
For example, while pregnancies affect less than .01 percent of the total force, she said, two factors boost the rate higher than it would normally be: morale problems that lead women to use pregnancy as an excuse to get out of the service, and a decline in sex education provided by the military. "Male NCOs [non-commissioned officers] simply do not feel comfortable performing their traditional, informal sex education role with the female troops as they do with the men."
Sex harassment and general lack of peer acceptance, she said, is a "legitimate big problem" which is causing women to "migrate" back out of the traditionally male jobs they were trained for, such as truck maintenance. "The cost of losing these highly trained people is significant and unnecessary."
She agreed that there is a need for a closer look at the problems. "We need to learn the capability of all our citizens -- men and women -- in peacetime, rather than waiting till the balloon goes up."