The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Axing the committee that studies and advocates for servicewomen is a mistake

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has laid the groundwork for major gains for women in the military

From left are Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead, assistant adjutant general for the Army; Brig. Gen. April D. Vogel, assistant adjutant general for air; Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, adjutant general of Maryland; and Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa D. Wilson, senior enlisted adviser for the Maryland National Guard. Maryland's National Guard is the first in the nation to be led by an all-female command staff. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In January 2021, just one month after the results of the military’s Fort Hood sexual assault investigation became public, the Pentagon began taking steps to eliminate the one organization that has consistently advocated for servicewomen for 70 years. Most Americans haven’t heard of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), but since 1951, no other group has given more attention to how to better recruit and retain women in the military. Their work improved servicewomen’s ability to do their jobs, which in turn helps the armed forces function more efficiently and with less turnover.

The current plan is to eliminate DACOWITS to save money and, theoretically, avoid redundancy: Defense leaders plan to wrap DACOWITS into a new committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. While this may sound sensible, the new committee would have much more work to do with fewer staff members, and it would be missing a focus that has proved deeply beneficial to the military.

DACOWITS developed in the early 1950s because defense leaders recognized that bringing women permanently into the military necessitated close attention to how to best use and take care of a new, vital weapon — womanpower. The U.S. military today is far more diverse than any military or government leader would have imagined in 1951, and understanding and addressing the needs of today’s servicewomen is integral to creating a more cohesive, effective defense team. In short, eliminating DACOWITS is not a wise budget cut.

The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act offered women permanent places in national defense outside the nursing corps.

In 1951, Assistant Secretary of Defense Anna Rosenberg created DACOWITS to help cohesively integrate women into the armed services. Rosenberg wanted to take advantage of suggestions from civilian women who advised the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. She envisioned expanding on the tactics that had proved successful for these leaders in convincing women to do their part to advance the war effort.

Rosenberg recruited a group of civilian women, mostly well-known in their communities or nationally, to fill out the committee. The first group of DACOWITS representatives included several of the women who led the wartime women’s military services, as well as Eleanor Pillsbury, president of Planned Parenthood Federation and wife of the president of the Pillsbury Company; actress Helen Hayes; India Edwards, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee; and civil rights activist Dorothy Height.

DACOWITS’s purpose was straightforward: help the armed forces educate Americans on opportunities for women in the military, and in doing so, increase recruitment. Because women could not be drafted, military leaders had to develop strategies to encourage them to pursue military careers. Additionally, the committee needed to sell the public on the idea of women in the military; during World War II, many Americans had struggled with the concept of women in uniform, which they saw as inappropriate.

Yet DACOWITS members understood that it wasn’t enough to recruit women; retention also mattered. That meant understanding and advocating for servicewomen’s needs and convincing the Defense Department that meeting them would improve efficiency and utilization — key goals for achieving the military’s larger mission. This was especially important because in the 1950s and 1960s, women could legally only make up 2 percent of the nation’s total military strength. Women in the military were a small, isolated group who needed strong recruitment and retention strategies to maximize their impact, which is where DACOWITS came in.

DACOWITS members visited military bases, talked to servicewomen, organized publicity on women’s military career opportunities and reported annually to the military chiefs and civilian defense officials. The Department of Defense saw DACOWITS as an advisory group that would help them manage womanpower, but DACOWITS members were more than that — they were the most consistent, vocal advocates servicewomen had. It wasn’t until the 1970s that feminist groups even began to take notice of issues pertaining to servicewomen, and when they did, they lacked the clout that DACOWITS had because of its relationship with the Department of Defense.

This expansive vision of its role, and the deep understanding of servicewomen’s needs forged from engaging and listening to them, led the committee to make numerous recommendations that were ahead of their time.

In the 1950s, for example, DACOWITS suggested that married servicewomen receive basic allowance for quarters, a financial benefit given to servicemen to support their housing arrangements. The DOD ignored this recommendation because at that time most Americans believed men should be a family’s primary breadwinner, and giving married servicewomen this financial benefit would imply that their husbands were incapable of taking care of them. Consequently, only servicewomen who could prove their husbands were dependent on them for at least half of their collective income qualified. Change came only when the Supreme Court overturned this policy on constitutional grounds in 1973.

DACOWITS’s recommendations led the way for women on several other fronts as well. The committee argued in 1963 that the Defense Department should allow mothers to remain in the military, almost a decade before the services even began to consider such a change. DACOWITS members also advocated opening the service academies to women four years before Congress agreed to do so. And in 1975, led in part by DACOWITS member (and future Supreme Court justice) Sandra Day O’Connor, the group pushed back on women’s exclusion from combat, requesting that the DOD develop a clearer definition of combat.

The relationship between women and combat changed slowly, with women first being allowed to serve on ships by the late 1970s, and then to fly in combat by the early 1990s. Only in 2015 were all gender-based combat restrictions eliminated.

During this period, DACOWITS members also investigated living conditions, educational opportunities, promotion, job assignments, combat and, more recently, vital issues such as sexual assault and how to support service members who are pregnant or mothers.

While the DOD often resisted its recommendations, the committee’s work laid the groundwork for changes that made the military more attractive to women and that treated women service members more fairly.

This progress is precisely why eliminating DACOWITS in the name of efficiency is misguided — especially given the issues facing women in the military today. Women have more opportunities for military careers than ever before, but the expansion of their roles makes it even more important to devote time, resources and attention to understanding how the military — still a male-dominated institution — is adapting to these changes. The 2020 Fort Hood report illustrated just how little has been done to protect service members from sexual assault, something that has been a problem for decades. The Marine Corps is still in the process of developing gender-integrated boot camp. In the past year, DACOWITS has continued to look closely at how motherhood and pregnancy affect women’s careers.

And as history reveals, DACOWITS often had a far better grasp of the needs of servicewomen than other parts of the DOD.

Having a larger group focused on diversity, equity and inclusion is a good idea. One of DACOWITS’s major failings in its first few decades was its lack of action to support servicewomen of color. The committee relied on its few African American members to publicize women’s service through organizations like the historically Black Delta Sigma Theta sorority and at the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Yet unlike with their other work, DACOWITS members in this period did not follow up with servicewomen of color to learn how to best support and retain them.

But constructing this committee at the expense of DACOWITS misses just how important — and often visionary — the committee has been. A larger committee is unlikely to do the detailed study on the needs of women in the military that DACOWITS has done. Nor will it be able to call attention to these needs to same degree.

Maintaining DACOWITS is a key way to ensure that newly recruited women, enticed by increased opportunity, receive the resources and support they need to remain in the military long term.