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“To Dictate the Terms of Motherhood”: A Female Reservist Challenges Army Policy

The issue of protective legislation for women and mothers has divided reformers, labor unionists, legislators, courts, the military, and feminists since the end of the 19th century when a number of states passed statutes to limit women’s work hours. At issue—equal treatment versus biological difference. During the Cold War era, this question informed the debate on the role of women in the military. Although the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 established a permanent presence for women in all branches of the armed forces, a new Army regulation in October 1949 required the discharge of female servicewomen with children under the age of 18. To guarantee passage of the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1952, during the Korean War, a provision was dropped that would have reversed this regulation. Thus mothers of dependent children were ineligible to enlist in reserve units and were discharged after childbirth or adoption. In the following Congressional session, the Senate passed S. 1492, allowing the reinstatement of women with dependent children. The bill, however, died in the House Committee on Armed Services and failed to become law. In the following testimony to the Senate subcommittee on S. 1492, Alba C. Thompson, a former servicewoman, pointed out that the present policy discriminated unjustly against women with children and entailed a squandering of valuable resources. Furthermore, she argued, the army had no right “to dictate the terms of motherhood.” In the 1970s, Congress finally passed a law that allowed women with dependent children to enlist.

Statement of Alba C. Thompson, East Orange, N.J.

Mrs. THOMPSON. Mr. Chairman and Senator Hunt, I appear at no expense to the Government. I represent no organization, but I do feel that, as the recipient of hundreds of letters from former servicewomen, I am typical of this group and that I reflect the common ideas and principles of these women.

In the fateful year of 1950, a startling personnel policy statement in the form of SR 140–175–1 was issued from the Department of the Army. The special regulation stated:

Discharge of members of the Officers' Reserve Corps will be accomplished-

In the case of female personnel not on extended active duty who have a dependent or dependents under 18 years of age or a child or children under 18 years of age or who have any legal custody, control, care, maintenance, or support of any child or children under 18 years of age. Women who have surrendered all rights or custody and control of such children or dependents through formal adoption or final divorce proceedings will not be discharged under these provisions.

This is indeed an extraordinary statement. Emanating as it did, in the early months of the Korean War, it is well-nigh incomprehensible. What madness propelled some personnel officer into an action which in those critical days was to accelerate the disintegration of the women’s branches of the Reserves at a time when they were needed most? What inverted and perverted thinking discards trained women of high ideals and demonstrated abilities as though in assuming the care of their children, their own or someone else’s, they had committed a crime? Had the Armed Forces achieved such a pinnacle of preparedness, such a proficiency, such manpower reserve that they could with equanimity deliberately rid themselves of the women who had contributed so effectively to the striking power of the Nation? Surely these and many other rhetorical questions must present themselves to the alert mind in even a cursory reading of the special regulation.

You will find ample evidence of the sorry waste that has resulted from the untimely and ill-conceived policy set forth in Army Special Regulation 140–175–1 and repeated in some form by the regulatory organs of other departments. The stories of a few individuals who have been directly affected by the current directives will be unfolded before you today, I believe. I shall, therefore, confine my observations to the general considerations of the problem rather than to the more dramatic individual instances that point out so graphically what such a policy is costing the Nation.

Examining SR 140–175–1, we find:

(1) It is aimed against women alone; only they are disqualified because of the care or custody of children under 18; widowers are not likewise disqualified. The widower is morally responsible for these children and still he is not disqualified.

(2) The women who shares in the maintenance of her younger brothers or sisters, or in any child, related or unrelated by blood, is disqualified; men are certainly not exempted from military service on the basis of dependency.

(3) The woman who in the goodness of her heart adopted a child is disqualified.

(4) The woman who served on active duty during World War II when she had children becomes ineligible for the Reserves years later when these same children are older.

I should like to inquire whether it is conceivable if Oveta Culp Hobby, who was the first director of the WAC, selected for that post when she had 2 minor children, was actually discharged from the reserves in 1950 when those children were approximately 14 and 17 years of age? It is inconceivable that such a regulation was invoked against a woman who was to become our first Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

(5) The regulation welcomes mothers who have surrendered all rights to their children through divorce or adoption proceedings and thus encourages women to shirk their family obligations. Further, it permits servicewomen through legal hocus-pocus to give up the custody of their children to members of their family, including their husbands, thus making these women admissible to service although they have in no way discharged their moral obligations to these children. Thus we have the anomaly of a regulation which prohibits the mother who seeks in every way to maintain her home and family, while welcoming the woman who has knowingly forfeited her children. It welcomes the divorcee who surrenders custody of her children and refuses admission to the widow who supports her family. Surely the gross injustice of such a regulation is clearly apparent.

We have surrendered to inactivity critical and highly trained skills and permitted them to molder in desuetude.

We have taken from some women the means by which they supported or maintained their children.

We have reduced the available manpower at a time when manpower needs are most acute and the manpower pool is shrinking.

We have deliberately wasted the countless administrative skills in which these women excel, thus consigning more able-bodied men to be filing clerks, typists, stenographers, and adjutants-swelling the armchair experts and reducing the rifle experts.

We have prodigally squandered the huge Federal investment made in the education of these women and are pouring additional moneys into the training of more women, most of whom will also be married and will also assume the duties of a family in the near future at which time they, too, would be discharged involuntarily. Our women’s services are on a treadmill spewing forth experienced, mature servicewomen at the same time that a costly recruiting program is attempting to shovel in young 18-year-olds who in turn will be tossed off the wheel when they reach a time of productivity if they follow their normal instincts and marry.

I have been informed by the main recruiting center of New York City, which has the jurisdiction of all of the New York City and surrounding territory that before February this year, young women were being enlisted at that office at the rate of 20 to 25 a month. The monthly number is now smaller. These tiny figures speak volumes as to the resistance of the public to voluntary service in the armed services. The recruiting program to raise the total of women in service by 72,000, which was followed last year, has failed abysmally.

Why did the present policy come into being in 1950 and not in 1948 when the WAC component of the Reserve was first authorized?

In my testimony of last year, given on the 26th of May 1952, I hazarded the guess that when the Korean war broke out it was discovered that some women with small children were unwilling to return to active duty if it meant separation from their children. Certainly this should be considered as adequate and valid a basis for deferment as a college education or an essential industry has been for thousands of young men. For far less cogent reasons, thousands more of the male reservists were deferred.

The point is that the Department of Defense had made no prior planning on the personnel problem of assigning such women. In many instances the records were so faulty as to reflect no children so that women were called to active duty without the realization by the services that they had minor dependents-in other words, with the same lack of discrimination that characterized the involuntary recall of men at that time.

I, who had no children and was especially trained at Government expense for the Far East and had already served 2 years in Korea, was not called to active duty.

Two of the women whose statements you will hear today volunteered their service at the outbreak of the Korean War and were refused duty because of their minor children. One lives beside an airbase, whose commanding general requested her recall to active duty in her specialty as an air traffic officer. The other is a cryptographer living in New York, a center for communications. No doubt some unhappy male was recalled against his will and transported halfway across the country to perform these jobs.

What was the thinking in the Department of Defense that brought such an ill-conceived policy into being? I have in my possession a letter dated January 18, 1952, from Hon. Anna M. Rosenberg, then Assistant Secretary of Defense, in which she states that she has made a thorough review of the established policy concerned and that the problem has had the personal attention of the Secretary of the Army and of Mrs. Rosenberg. I trust, then, that the points listed in this letter reflected the thinking of the Department of Defense at that time, and I shall only read excerpts from it. . . .

There was in Mrs. Rosenberg’s letter no answer to the technical points raised in mine, no coming to grips with the problem, no attack on the basic issues. There is only a refutation that women can successfully combine motherhood and service. There is a reiteration of the status quo. There is perhaps, the polite implication that mothers belong in the home. As a mother, I find it beyond the responsibility and allotted scope of the services to dictate the terms of motherhood. When has it ever been necessary to remind American mothers of their duties? I believe the welfare of our children is safe in the hands of their mothers and that the Army need never concern itself with this score.

I find it ignoble that the Armed Forces should seek so desperately for some justification of the present regulation that they attack the farseeing women to whom the state of the world in which they live is of grave concern. At what time in our history did the Armed Forces decide that the working mother was not all she should be?

At present women constitute 29 percent of the civilian work force. This means that 19 million American women are gainfully employed and are pouring their energies into the factories, the businesses, and the professions. This in itself is tremendously significant when viewed from the ever-increasing defense needs of the country. What is perhaps more astonishing is that, for the first time in our history, married women workers outnumber single women workers. Of these married women, over 4 million working mothers have children under 18 years of age-1 million of these have children younger than school age.

Obviously business and labor have not discharged women solely because they have children. The conclusion is inevitable: women who have children are considered valuable enough to retain within the working force. Arrangements for pregnancy leaves and special prenatal and postnatal care are being included in more and more of the union contracts as a matter of course. There is no argument here as to whether these women are entitled to such considerations; it is taken for granted that they are.

Source: Appointment or Retention of Certain Female Reserve Personnel with Minor Children, Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 83rd Congress, 1st Session, on S. 1492, May 14 and 15, 1953. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1953.