Women in Military at Crossroads without Signposts

Advancement for women in the military may be stalled. The committee in charge of looking out for them has not met in more than a year and new regulations worry women's rights activists.

Lisa Gerlt

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)-The military planes buzzing over her Columbus, Miss., home as she was growing up provided all the inspiration Lisa Gerlt needed to focus her career plan. She was going to be a fighter pilot.

That was 16 years ago, before women were allowed to become aviators in the armed services. As soon as she was old enough, Gerlt enlisted anyway, and now the 34-year-old master sergeant says the U.S. Air Force treats women just fine. She never did get back to that aviator training she had her eye on early in her career, even after the Department of Defense decreed in 1994 that women could become fighter pilots.

“I knew before I graduated from high school that that was what I wanted to do. I never had any other desire,” Gerlt said. “I was very naive. It could have been possible, I guess, if I had driven myself more. Lots of women do it and I admire them, but once I got in, I just wanted to do what they felt I was best for.”

Today the more than 200,000 women in the military make up 15 percent of all service people, and they are beginning to creep into the upper ranks, with more than a dozen captaining naval ships and scores flying bombers.

Gerlt is one of the servicewomen whose lives have been changed by a fairly obscure group known as the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, which was established in 1951. Like many such military groups, it is best known by its acronym, DACOWITS, and it is widely believed to have improved the lot of military women nationwide.

DACOWITS is currently at a crossroads after gaining critics in the military who said it was pursuing a feminist agenda. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld allowed the committee's charter to lapse in February, then dismissed all the members and reorganized the committee under a new charter just days later.

Now the Defense Department is sifting through the more than 100 applications it has received for the up to 35 civilian members the new charter allows. Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. James Cassella said that the department has begun interviewing applicants, but he doesn't know if the committee will be in place for a meeting this fall. DACOWITS has traditionally held both spring and fall meetings, but has not met since spring 2001.

“The process is well under way,” Cassella said. “As soon as we get the committee reconstituted, it will have a full workload in the interest of recruiting and retaining professional military women.”

‘They Are Looking for Someone Like Them-A White Male Conservative'

Gerlt can't recall any specific improvements brought about by the old DACOWITS. Another servicewoman, Maj. Elizabeth Arledge, a seven-year veteran of active duty who is now a reservist, says she occasionally saw female-friendly initiatives trickle down through the ranks, but they weren't attributed to the women's commission.

Arledge, an aircraft maintenance officer in the Air Force, doesn't think the makeup of DACOWITS will make that much difference without a change of culture at the highest levels of the military. While she personally had no problems being in charge of a traditionally male specialty, she acknowledges that “there are still people today who don't want to take orders from a woman.”

“At the working level, people are going to pick who gets the job done,” Arledge said, “but, when it comes to higher level positions, it's just not going to happen as easily for a woman.”

“Maybe lieutenant colonel,” she said. “But general is just not going to happen. They are looking for someone like them-a white male conservative.”

Becoming a commander of a fighter wing or of a division of ground troops is almost an impossible dream for a woman in today's armed forces, says Arledge. You just don't get to prove yourself as a leader if you're kept in support roles far from the front.

As an information-management specialist, Gerlt did get a taste of action relatively close to the front, including tours of duty in Kuwait and in Stuttgart, Germany. And although she never got to be a pilot, she will become an officer, with a promotion to second lieutenant awaiting her after she completes officer training school this winter.

Gerlt, along with her husband, Bryan, an F-15 crew chief, are now stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. She is pregnant and due with her first child next month. She doesn't mind that she will soon outrank her husband, who, incidentally, will be caring for the new baby while she's away at officer school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. She says he doesn't mind either.

“I've had a wonderful career and I wouldn't change anything about it. I can't think of anything that was ever put in my way, that ever held me back,” Gerlt said. “I've just been given lots of opportunities and I took advantage of them. You get noticed that way.”

Advocates Worry about New Limits on Women's Duties

Gerlt is part of what many consider the “new” military. Not so long ago, servicemen would quip: “If the Navy had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” But today's military makes it a priority to keep spouses together, provides parenting classes for new mothers and fathers and offers day care right on the base, with the cost based on the parents' pay. And it lets women fly.

“People think that women aren't allowed in combat,” said Cassella, “but there have been women fighter pilots and military policewomen manning weapons on the backs of humvees for almost a decade.”

Ninety-two percent of all military specialties are open to women, Cassella said. The ones closed to women are in areas of direct ground combat, defined as well forward on the battlefield where there is a high probability of physical combat. Those include infantry and Special Forces, two areas that offer enlisted personnel the opportunity for rapid advancement when they prove their leadership skills.

Women's rights advocates such as Nancy Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, see the Pentagon's recent move to ban women from the new reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition teams as a troubling trend toward less opportunity for women in the service.

“There's no one thing here that you can point to,” Campbell said. “It's just that there are warning signs in what they are doing and what they have done so far.”

But others, such as Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, say the restrictions don't go far enough. She'd like to see women barred from being pilots as well.

“If she is shot down then she becomes a ground combatant,” Donnelly said. “I'm on record against this issue . . . Most POWs are pilots. To expose women to that is in essence an endorsement of the violence against women.”

Few believe the clock can be tuned back on women becoming fighter pilots, and women's rights groups are keeping an eye on the latest changes to DACOWITS and women's opportunities in the armed forces. Gerlt, at least, is satisfied with what she's seen in one small branch of it.

“I believe the Air Force gives everyone equal opportunities,” said Gerlt. “They put the opportunities out there for you and if you have the initiative to take advantage of them, then you will succeed.”

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

Alliance for National Defense
A Voice for Military Women:

National Women's Law Center
Women in the Military:

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services: