Feminist Military History
It Just Wasn’t a Good Fit

It Just Wasn’t a Good Fit

Natalie Shibley

Charity Adams Earley’s winter coat didn’t fit. At the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Training Center in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1942, women had been issued winter overcoats designed for enlisted men. Earley’s coat was too short in the arms, but many other Army women found their coats too large. And, although Earley was training to be an officer, all women had been given coats designed for the enlisted ranks.1 Supplying appropriate uniforms and equipment to women continued to be a problem for the Army for the duration of the war, and has been ever since.

Appropriately sized equipment for military women has been a consistent recommendation of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. As recently as 2018, the DACOWITS annual report noted that military women frequently lacked suitable protective gear and were often training with old or ill-fitting equipment, increasing injury rates. Among other things, the Army only recently acquired helmets that accommodate hairstyles such as the buns military women frequently wear. The FY21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes provisions initially introduced in the Senate as the “Female Body Armor Modernization Act of 2019,” requiring each branch to provide information about the availability of “newest generation personal protective equipment” for service members by sex and to collect data on injuries sustained while wearing this new equipment as opposed to older models.2 This had to be legislated because the equipment for many women still doesn’t consistently fit.

Screen capture of the DACOWITS website from August 30, 2010. (Library of Congress)

In many ways, feminist military history is about not fitting: what doesn’t fit, who doesn’t fit, where they don’t fit and why. And, of course, fitness or unfitness for service. Feminist military history does not mean that the military itself is feminist. It is, however, a lens for examining how sex and gender function within the armed forces and in the broader society, how war can reshape gender, and how a focus on defining two sexes in distinction from each other constrains everybody.

Men and women in the military have different regulations for several things, which can be as specific as hair length. In some services, men and women have different minimum height requirements to join (women can be shorter). The Marines maintain sex-segregated basic training, although this is in the process of being phased out. Of course, all of this assumes that there are two distinct sexes, only these two, and that everybody belongs to one or the other. A feminist military history examines these kinds of distinctions, what they mean about how gender is defined in the military, and how that might affect or be affected by civilian notions of gender.

The first women cadets entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1976, a year after Congress passed a law requiring admission of women to the service academies. At the time, women were barred from combat, and many people challenged whether they ought to be admitted to this prestigious, taxpayer-funded educational institution at all if they were not going to become officers in combat arms. For the most part, educational requirements remained the same for women, but there were a few modifications. At West Point, male cadets took a required combatives class that included boxing and wrestling, but Army officials decided that these were not appropriate activities for women. Instead, women’s combatives classes taught self-defense strategies. The question of women boxing was the subject of considerable debate, involving the expert advice of four civilian consultants, one of whom warned, “Regardless of feminist views, potential injury to breast tissue is a real problem.”3 This was an intriguing concern considering that the primary goal of boxing is to knock one’s opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head, which is also potentially dangerous. Yet the benefits of boxing were judged important enough for male cadets that possible damage to the brain or other organs was an acceptable risk, while possible damage to women’s breasts was not. “There is no research or scientific evidence to prove that women have the physiological capacity to box without undue risk of debilitating injury,” the Superintendent of West Point wrote to the Chief of Staff of the Army.4 Of course, if there was no evidence to prove that women could box without being injured, there was also no evidence to prove that they were likely to be injured. Army officials merely assumed that they would be. Boxing only became a mandatory part of the West Point curriculum for women in 2016, the same year that the services were required to fully implement their elimination of the combat exclusion policy.5 The actual educational curriculum of the university differed by sex until 2016 based on concerns about women’s fragility and combat exclusion.

Busts of five women in military uniforms on a stamp.
Commemorative US Postal Service stamp. (1999 Library of Congress Celebratory calendar)

The military has also been central in feminist legal history. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first appearance before the Supreme Court for oral argument occurred in 1973. She was representing the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae in the case Frontiero v. Richardson. Sharron Frontiero, an Air Force officer, learned that although she was married, the Air Force would not consider her husband to be her dependent unless she proved that she provided more than half of his financial support. In contrast, men’s wives were automatically classified as dependents. Military dependent status entitled the spouse to certain medical benefits and the service member to a larger housing allowance payment. Married enlisted men were therefore automatically paid more than married enlisted women regardless of their spouses’ income and without the need to provide proof. Ginsburg and the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Joseph J. Levin, Jr., who represented the Frontieros, won the case 8-1.6 The Court found that the federal government had violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by imposing different standards on men and women. Justice William Brennan, joined by three other justices, wrote that sex-based classifications were “inherently suspect” and ought to be subject to strict scrutiny. Four other justices agreed that the military policy discriminated against women but based their judgments on other rationale. The case was critical in successfully arguing against sex discrimination in the federal government, as well as its new notion that sex did not automatically correlate with dependency—though the underlying issue of marital privilege went unexamined. Married service members were still entitled to greater compensation in the form of larger housing allowances than unmarried service members, which remains true today.7

Historians of war and the military have long been interested in such topics as supply, officer training, and compensation of personnel. These subjects, and the many others that might be included in military history, also hold critical relevance for everyone. The FY21 NDAA is a $740 billion bill. In addition to requiring acquisition of body armor that fits women, the bill is so wide-ranging that it specifically authorizes the Army to build an elevated walkway between two parking garages in South Korea. In fact, military spending is the majority of federal discretionary spending. Feminist military history traces how this money got spent, how tax dollars turned into ill-fitting coats, housing allowances, and boxing classes. More importantly, it asks what might have been possible if the money hadn’t been spent this way, what other futures might have been pursued, what wasn’t accounted for, what wasn’t important enough to fit.


  1. Charity Adams Earley, One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 57. Return to text.
  2. 116th Congress, S. 2970, “Female Body Armor Modernization Act of 2019;” 116th Congress, S. 4049, “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.” Return to text.
  3. Cited in A. J. Goodpaster to Bernard W. Rogers, November 23, 1977, RG 319 “Records of the Army Staff—Publications, Unpublished Manuscripts, and Background Papers for ‘The Women’s Army Corps 1945-1978,’” Entry A1, 145-W, Box 15, Folder WAC 106 “Trip Reports-DWAC-Staff Visits, 1975-76-77,” National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Return to text.
  4. A. J. Goodpaster to Bernard W. Rogers, November 23, 1977, RG 319 “Records of the Army Staff—Publications, Unpublished Manuscripts, and Background Papers for ‘The Women’s Army Corps 1945-1978,’” Entry A1, 145-W, Box 15, Folder WAC 106 “Trip Reports-DWAC-Staff Visits, 1975-76-77,” National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Return to text.
  5. Also see S. J. Pendergraft on earlier involvement of women in boxing classes: S.J. Pendergraft, “ How I Fought to Get Women’s Boxing at West Point,” Lenny, June 27, 2017. The Department of Defense lifted the combat exclusion policy in 2013, shortly after the 2012 lawsuit Hegar et al. v. Panetta was filed, but full implementation was not required until 2016. Return to text.
  6. Frontiero v. Richardson 411 US 677 (1973). Ginsburg had written a brief for Reed v. Reed (1971) but did not appear before the Court in that case. Much has been written about Frontiero v. Richardson. For one source, see Serena Mayeri, Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). For a story about the first meeting between Ginsburg and Sharron Frontiero (since remarried and named Sharron Cohen) at a photo session in support of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, see Anna Claire Vollers, “‘ All right to be a hero’: Meet the woman whose landmark case was the first Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued at the Supreme Court,” Reckon, September 20, 2020. Return to text.
  7. See, for example, Jennifer Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), on benefits provided to service members’ families. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Reenlistment Ceremony in Charleston, SC. (Courtesy National Archives)

Natalie Shibley is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. She is writing a manuscript about race, homosexuality investigations, and notions of disease in the U.S. military from the 1940s to 1990s. She earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the first recipient of a joint doctoral degree in Africana Studies and History.