Ukrainian women are making headlines with acts of resistance to Russia’s invasion, from hurling canned tomatoes at drones, to crafting Molotov cocktails for use against tanks, to offering Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so that Ukraine’s national flower could grow from where they fell. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Women Warriors: Ukraine and Beyond,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the lionization and criticism of women in war—from the mythic Revolutionary War water-bringer “Molly Pitcher,” to the World War II Russian sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Another moment of reckoning over women in combat came in the late 1970s, when gender integration in the U.S. military sparked a vigorous debate in Washington. 

In the November 1979 issue of The Washingtonian, James Webb wrote a controversial article entitled “Women Can’t Fight.” Webb was a Vietnam Navy veteran who won the Navy Cross for Heroism after he was wounded in the knee, kidney, and head during a grenade battle in 1969. He had gone on to serve on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and in 1978 had published Fields of Fire, a bestselling novel inspired by his combat experience. Webb was a particularly high-profile voice in a growing coalition of dissatisfied military figures. 

Webb began his polemic with an intense interpretation of the psychological goals of warfare: “The function of combat is not merely to perpetrate violence, but to perpetrate violence on command, instantaneously and reflexively.” He shared memories of particularly brutal moments in his own military career, all the way back to the “harsh and cruel” abuse he had weathered as a first year “plebe” at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. 

Webb also shared horror stories form his service in Vietnam. “We became vicious and aggressive and debased, and reveled in it, because combat is all of those things and we were surviving,” he said of his experience. 

Webb believed that these moments of abjection were central to the experience of being a soldier—and that they were inherently masculine evolutionary attributes. “When the layerings of centuries of societal development are stripped away, a basic human truth remains: Man must be more aggressive in order to perpetuate the human race,” Webb wrote. “Women don’t rape men, and it has nothing to do, obviously, with socially induced differences.”  

Near the end of the piece, Webb quoted a submariner named Jeff McFadden, who argued that the increasing presence of women in academies and on the battlefield sapped fighting men of their existential meaning: “Where in this country can someone go to find out if he is a man? And where can someone who knows he is a man go to celebrate his masculinity? Is that important on a societal level? I think it is.” 

Webb co-signed McFadden’s statement and offered a blunt assessment of his own views: “I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”

Webb’s article was a reaction to a boom in female military participation. In 1970, women made up 1% of America’s armed forces. By decade’s end, the number had soared to 8%, or about 150,000 women. 

The increase was the result of several governmental pushes for gender equity. In October 1975, President Ford signed Public Law 94-106, which ended gender segregation at college-level military academies. 

In May 1977, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown ordered a background study called “The Use of Women in the Military.” The study found that expanding roles for women could help to address the decline of volunteer enlistment that followed the abolition of the draft in 1973: “Use of more women can be a significant factor in making the all‐volunteer force continue to work in the face of a declining youth population.”  

In April 1978, piggybacking off the Defense report, President Carter opted to abolish the Women’s Army Corps. Carter argued that the WACs were no longer necessary given the increase in female access to most military positions. Department of Defense policy still forbade women from direct frontline combat positions, but experts suggested that any expansion of participation would lead to female casualties in the event of direct conflict. 

Days after Webb’s article, beginning on November 13th, 1979, the House Military Personnel Subcommittee held hearings to further parse the debate over women in the military.  

Admiral Jeremiah Denton gave passionate testimony. Denton was a POW in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. In 1966, during the filming of a North Vietnamese propaganda video, Denton had managed to blink out the letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code, the first formal acknowledgment of atrocities against American POWs during the conflict. Upon his return to the United States, he wrote a memoir called When Hell Was in Session, which earlier in 1979 had been adapted into a TV movie starring Hal Holbrook. 

Rather than taking Webb’s route of comparing alleged male and female abilities, Denton argued for sparing women pain. Denton recounted in searing detail his treatment during one period of particularly acute week-long torture, during which his arms and legs were bound: “I was reduced to a writhing, crawling animal on the floor, which was filthy. My body was covered in boils…I just don’t like to think of a young lady spending 10 days and nights like that. And that was a mild situation.” 

Denton’s testimony was countered by Air Force Undersecretary Antonia Handler Chayes, a former Tufts University political science professor who had helped put women into the cockpit on C-141 cargo planes and other non-combat jets. 

Chayes argued that women should be considered for combat roles and deserved the same opportunities—including death—as their male counterparts. “There is the question of equity, of equal opportunity to fight and die for a country as opposed to the risk of death women have always faced in roles as nurses and other support functions during wartime,” Chayes pointed out.  

At the end of her testimony, Chayes acknowledged the adjustment that men would have to make to accommodate these changes. “The hesitation to move women from the protected to the arena of the protectors runs deep in our society.” 

Shortly after the hearings, in December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan

Given the heightened potential for direct conflict with Russia, Carter pushed for a compulsory peacetime registration drive to make a theoretical resumption of the draft more efficient. Carter decided to include women in the proposal. “My decision is a recognition of the reality that both women and men are working members of our society,” Carter wrote in a February 8th, 1980 statement accompanying the decision. “The military should be no exception.”

Even before Carter’s announcement, the likelihood of congressional support for a female-inclusive draft seemed doomed. On January 31st, 1980, House Speaker Tip O’Neill spoke candidly to the press, saying, “As I read the Congress, it wouldn’t go…it would be anathema around here.” 

Carter linked his inclusion of women to the long-debated Equal Rights Amendment, which would have changed the Constitution to guarantee legal equality for men and women. “Just as we are asking women to assume additional responsibilities, it is more urgent than ever that the women in America have full and equal rights under the Constitution. Equal obligations deserve equal rights,” he wrote. 

On the same day as Carter’s statement, the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued a position paper co-signing female participation in the draft registration. “Those who oppose the registration and draft for females say they seek to protect women. But omission from the registration and draft ultimately robs women of the right to first class citizenship and paves the way to underpaying women all the remaining days of our lives.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the gender-inclusive draft proposals distributed posters to congressional offices showcasing a drawing of a young, uniformed woman missing a leg and standing with her crying mother. “This is what the equal rights amendment did for my daughter,” read a speech bubble coming from the mom. 

Some progressive voices also condemned NOW’s perspective and argued that Carter’s inclusion of women in the draft plan was a cynical attempt to justify warmongering. 

Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem and former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug held a press conference shortly before Carter’s announcement to condemn the plan. “Look, the purpose of this press conference is to make clear we are concerned about what is happening in this country, the hysteria, the return of the Cold War, the use of the draft and registration for political purposes to help fan the flames,” Abzug said. 

Alexandra Burack, a sophomore and the Women’s Union president at Sarah Lawrence College, told the New York Times that the general support for Carter’s draft plan reflected a broader apathy. “This lack of political consciousness is really preventing most women on campus from understanding the objective nature of the draft or of war in itself,” Burack said. 

The detractors won out and Carter settled for a male-only selective service registration plan, which he signed into law in July 1980. Selective service registration remains a requirement for all American men aged 18 to 25. 

Women are still moving toward full integration into the U.S. military, following Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 2013 lifting of female combat limitations. Lieutenant Maria Hierl, for example, became the first female Marine Infantry officer in 2017. 

Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine—as with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan almost 43 years ago—intensifies the tangled issues of violence, equity, and cultural backlash that have so long accompanied conversations about women in combat, at home as well as abroad. 

For more on various 20th century American debates over gender and combat, read William Breuer’s 1997 War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy. For a closer look at the 1970s debate, read Marc Leepson’s 1981 Congressional Quarterly report “Women in the Military.” 

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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