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Historical policies affecting women’s military and family roles

Erika Lee King (University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA)
Diana M. DiNitto (University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 10 April 2019

Issue publication date: 28 May 2019




The US military depends on women to meet recruiting goals, but women participate at lower rates than men. Theorists suggest that military and family policies affect women’s lower participation. Research has confirmed the impact of policy changes on women’s military service during specific time periods. The purpose of this paper is to examine how and when military policies affecting women developed over the course of history, exploring two related hypotheses: first, when women’s military participation is vital, policies affecting their military and family roles punctuate in tandem, and second, cultural values impact policy solutions to reconcile women’s roles.


Punctuated equilibrium and a women’s military participation theory informed the hypotheses. US Census and Defense Department data were used to identify periods of service when women’s military participation was vital. Historical policies were mapped and analyzed to identify policy patterns and themes affecting women’s military participation 1895–2015.


Evidence supports both hypotheses. When women are needed during wartimes, policies simultaneously encourage their service and regulate their family roles. However, policies evolved from separating servicewomen’s roles prior to the 1970s (e.g. prohibiting motherhood), to supporting their families (e.g. maternity leave) – a shift precipitated by sweeping changes in broader society and the military’s change from the draft to an All-Volunteer Force.


Findings elucidate the link between military and family policies affecting US women’s military participation and retention. Results may inform policy advocacy aimed at optimizing the US Department of Defense’s diversity efforts.



King, E.L. and DiNitto, D.M. (2019), "Historical policies affecting women’s military and family roles", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 39 No. 5/6, pp. 427-446.



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