(WOMENSENEWS)–A little-known but controversial Pentagon agency that advises the government on issues affecting women in the military is being called into question, as the war against terrorism heightens the debate about women serving in combat.
The progressive organization that fought to place women closer to the front lines is criticized by some conservative women as advocating outdated feminism, and one Washington media report said conservative political appointees to the Defense Department are gunning for the civilian group.
At issue is the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, known as “DACOWITS.” Founded in 1951 by then-Secretary of Defense George Marshall, the advisory committee consists of 31 civilian women and two men who make recommendations on the role of women in the services and on quality-of-life issues affecting military women. Among the changes that the committee helped bring about: the admission of women to the service academies and to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
In 1994, the Defense Department rescinded a longstanding policy known as the “Risk Rule,” which had prohibited women from serving in military positions that might expose them to hostile fire or capture. With that change, urged by the advisory committee, thousands of new jobs opened up to women in the armed forces. They became bomber pilots, fighter pilots and sailors on combat ships-and combat is the fast track to military advancement. Today, the 200,094 women in the U.S. military comprise 14.7 percent of the 1,357,042 soldiers and sailors in the total force.
“As of 1994, 90 percent of all career fields were open to women,” said Maj. James Cassella, a Defense Department spokesman. “It seems to be working well. For the Department of Defense, it’s nothing new that women are flying combat missions over Afghanistan. That’s unremarkable to us.”
Policy Still Prohibits Women From Direct Ground Combat
Yet Defense Department policy still prohibits women from being assigned to units that engage in “direct ground combat,” such as infantry units. For a talented leader, infantry and direct ground are the route to the top.
In the final months of the Clinton administration, the Defense Advisory Committee made three controversial recommendations in an attempt to admit female soldiers and sailors to positions that some critics say are either completely unworkable, or just barely skirt the prohibition against women in direct ground combat.
Those recommendations included assigning women to submarines, to the crews of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, the large, tracked vehicles that launch rockets from the rear of combat areas and to the helicopter crews of Special Operations units, such as the Army Rangers.
Vickie McCall, chair of the Defense advisory committee on women, says the distinction between direct ground combat and combat support is already blurred. Women now pilot medical evacuation helicopters, Navy fighter jets and Army bombers that take them into life-threatening situations and could land them on the ground in a combat zone.
McCall was appointed to the Defense advisory committee in 1998 by then-Defense Secretary William Cohen. She became the committee’s chair in November 1999. Her term ends in December. A licensed Utah real estate agent, she has been on the board of trustees for an aerospace museum and is past chair of the Ogden and Salt Lake Military Affairs Committee in Utah. She was also the first woman to have been appointed a Utah alcohol and beverage control commissioner.
McCall does not feel that opponents of the Defense Advisory Committee are targeting her personally, but says some vocal opponents get more of a public forum than the committee itself, which prefers not to get into public disputes with its critics.
“I have to say I’m somewhat frustrated,” she said. “We focus on our work. We’re not out launching a public relations campaign. There are those that would like to see us go away that do not understand our issues. We work for the Department of Defense; we focus on our mission.”
Part of that mission, McCall pointed out, is to make military life better for all of its members by making it better for a specific group: military women. Women in the military are eager to serve their country to the fullest extent possible, willing to share difficult and dangerous tasks with their male counterparts and conscious that in many cases, their assignments already carry life-threatening risks, McCall and other Defense advisory committee supporters said.
“What we’re saying is, ‘Define direct combat,'”McCall added. “The lines are becoming amorphous. We’ve got women flying helicopters right now on search and rescue missions. We are not trying to get women into foxholes. Where it makes sense, we say, ‘Why not give women the opportunities when we know they can do it?'”
So far, the recommendations remain just that: recommendations. The Army decided that Multiple Launch Rocket Systems fell under the definition of “direct ground combat” and similarly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ruled out assigning women to special operations helicopters.
Group Accused of Pushing ‘Outdated Feminist Agenda’
Submarines present another problem, according to the Navy: the cost and difficulty of retrofitting existing subs to accommodate women. The Defense advisory committee is now encouraging the Defense Department to consider ways that submarines on the drawing board could accommodate women, but no definite plan to integrate women and men on submarines has been announced.
Reaction to the Defense advisory committee recommendations illustrates why, in the words of one Defense Department spokesman, the group been a “lightning rod” that has attracted far more attention than other advisory groups.
Among the sharpest critics of the committee is Elaine Donnelly, a former committee member during the Reagan years who says the group is pushing an outdated feminist agenda.
“All of these things on the DACOWITS agenda are quite radical and are strongly opposed by military leaders who understand what combat is all about,” said Donnelly, who now heads the Center for Military Readiness, a policy group on military personnel issues. “The majority of women in the military oppose being forced into combat, and yet DACOWITS continues to push for this agenda,” she said in an interview.
Most women cannot perform equal to men in combat situations, Donnelly said, and women would be problematic on a submarine crew because if a submariner discovered she was pregnant during a mission, the mission would have to be disrupted while she returned to land.
The debate about these ideas heightened recently when Defense advisory committee supporters and critics alike noted an item in the Oct. 29 “Whispers” column of U.S. News and World Report. That item, attributed to an anonymous Defense Department official, suggested that Bush appointees to the Department of Defense are gunning for the group, by “planning to sideline the organization that fought to put women closer to the front lines.”
Pentagon Spokesman Calls Committee Source of ‘Valued Advice’
Not so, said Defense Department spokesman Cassella. The Defense advisory committee has drawn criticism out of “confusion over the advisory nature of their role,” Cassella said. The committee makes recommendations, not policy, and is “one of several sources of valued advice for the Secretary of Defense and the services,” he said.
But some observers say the influence of the advisory committee was declining even before the Bush administration took over.
One is author Stephanie Gutmann, who studied the integration of women into the new military fields in the 1990s in her book, “The Kinder, Gentler Military: How Political Correctness Affects Our Ability to Win Wars,” which was released in paperback in August.
“I think DACOWITS has been less important, marginalized, throughout the Clinton administration,” she said. “If it gets any more marginalized, it will get in trouble. Often, the people that come in just don’t have enough knowledge to start out with. Most of their short tenure is spent getting up to speed. I could see that it could work; I don’t think it’s working now.”
Supporters of the advisory committee say it still has a vital role and that critics mistakenly think the group’s sole focus is pushing for women to gain access to jobs now rated as combat positions.
Many changes that have improved the lives of military women came about because the advisory committee simply initiated a discussion with commanders or Pentagon officials and raised questions about a previously accepted practice or policy, said Barbara Glacel, vice chair of the group’s equality management subcommittee.
Committee Often Asks the Right Questions
“I’ll tell you what often happens–we ask questions that affect their comfort level, so sometimes we don’t even have to get to the recommendation stage,” Glacel said. “The way Elaine Donnelly describes us is as a bunch of bra-burning feminists who would sacrifice the mission to get the woman in, and that’s not true.”
Marene Allison, vice chair of the advisory group’s forces development and utilization committee, also sees the civilian organization as providing a service that goes beyond the attention-getting recommendations.
Allison graduated from West Point in 1980 in the first class to include women and pursued a career as a military police officer until she felt that too many obstacles were blocking her career advancement. Then she worked as an FBI agent for six years before becoming head of security for the A&P grocery store chain. Today, she is vice president for business initiatives at A&P.
As for Donnelly’s argument that a pregnant submariner could disrupt a mission, Allison points out that a male submariner who had a heart attack or developed prostate cancer would also have to be returned to home port.
She predicts that women will eventually serve in full combat positions. Many already hold command positions in the military that were unthinkable when she entered West Point in 1976. She cites a woman classmate who is now a full colonel and a brigade commander of a helicopter field aviation unit in Korea.
“Everything that flies in the Army in Korea is hers,” Allison said.
These women owe at least part of their progress to the Defense advisory committee, she said. “I have to tell you, if there wasn’t a DACOWITS, women probably wouldn’t have gone into the service academies, they wouldn’t be on fighter aircraft, they wouldn’t be pushing the envelope,” she said. “We raise the consciousness.”
Darryl McGrath is a freelance writer in Albany, New York, who writes often on politics and women’s issues.
For more information:
The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), for information on this advisory group to the armed services:
The Center for Military Readiness, a policy group on military personnel matters headed by Elaine Donnelly, a former DACOWITS committee member:
The Department of Defense’s assignment policy for women in the military can be accessed via the Google search engine at:
The Department of Defense Web site archives contains many articles and studies about women in the military. Typing in “women” in the archive search link at the top of the page will produce links to hundreds of resources: