- A Defensive Weapon Known to Be of Value: Service Women of the Korean War Era
The authors have produced a well-researched study of the role of military women from the days immediately after World War II through the beginning of the Cold War and the Korean War. The book's readability is enhanced by the side bar experiences of individual servicewomen. The goal of detailing the rocky path to true integration of servicewomen into the American military is well supported. The authors note that the military reflects American society and that it had changed little from 1948, when the Women's Armed Services Integration Act was passed, and 1953, the end of the Korean conflict. Society viewed a woman's role to be that of wife, mother, and, at best, domestic scientist keeping the home humming along for the breadwinner and his family. To step out of this role by joining the armed services was to be branded a militant, a woman of loose morals, or a homosexual. The mould of wife and mother was supposed to be enough for all women. The "paternalistic" military tried to "sell" a larger female role by trumpeting that women only wanted to be team players, shouldering their burden in the defense of America, not militantly snatching men's roles and usurping their authority. Simply put, the idea of women being equal team members and assuming nontraditional roles was floated by the military at an inauspicious time in our history. The Services had the laudatory goal of having a ready-trained cadre prepared to quickly step up in national emergencies, until recruitment or the draft filled the ranks; however, they doomed their efforts by drastically reducing the range of career opportunities and overseas postings available to women, as well as providing unflattering uniforms, or not enough of them to clothe a nattily dressed female force. Women had more job variety in World War II where they were replacing, not augmenting, men who were then available for combat. Take for example the success and notoriety of Rosie the Riveter and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). [End Page 554] The ranks of servicewomen never grew to meet the need, but the Services could not integrate the ones they did have.
For the first time ever, the Reserves did call up women and there was also limited congressional support for drafting women. But America's social mores defeated the effort. No Service came near its female recruiting goal during the Korean War. Each Service struggled with social perceptions of what women wanted, what would attract and retain high-quality women, and what roles would be "proper" for them. It is interesting to note that these were not overriding concerns when the world was aflame with war. The authors correctly cite the above named limitations as the biggest reasons the Services never met their goals. Gone were the action roles—Rosie the Riveter, truck mechanics and drivers, and aircraft ferry pilots. These roles were now "not proper" and signaled a return to prewar, Depression-era attitudes that women could not take away a breadwinning man's job. Women's rights simply did not have the strong support in the 1950s that civil rights did a decade later. It would take the women's liberation movement to change society's views and to open new vistas to military women.
This book belongs on the bookshelves of Korean War historians, political and social scientists, and women's history buffs. It fills a real void in the fabled history of America's servicewomen.