Women Build Rank as Marines

Today, female recruits face the same standards men do - but 20 years ago it was a different story.

When Sgt. Maj. Beverly Morgan enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1975, the physical demands on women were rigorous: hours of backbreaking exercise with a red-hot metal implement.

"We did a lot of ironing," recalls Major Morgan, "and taking care of our uniforms, and shining shoes...."

"Our shirts would stand up," agrees another veteran. "No one could iron better than a woman marine."

Next, there was the strategically tricky task of applying eye shadow.

"We were issued makeup and taught to blend it with our skin tone," says Morgan. "We had to wear lipstick every day. When we got up, it was the thing to do."

Today, relaxing in her Parris Island, S.C., office in combat fatigues and black leather boots, Morgan can laugh about the days in the 1970s and '80s when she had to wear high heels and skirts and couldn't fire a gun.

Opportunities for women in the Marine Corps, reputedly the US military's most macho force, have widened significantly this decade. The percentage of women in the elite, 174,000-strong service has grown by roughly one-third to 5.4 percent. Meanwhile, women have doubled their presence in senior enlisted grades.

These trends will continue as the Corps recruits more women and fewer men, says Lt. Col. Angela Salinas, who commands recruit training for all female marines. She says the Corps has lifted its ceiling on the recruitment of women and dropped an automatic preference for men.

"Before, [recruiters] would pick the male regardless" of whether a female candidate was more qualified, Colonel Salinas says. "Now they select whoever is better."

Moreover, women's training and physical fitness standards, once comparatively low, are now identical in many respects to those for men. Just as men do, women must now qualify in marksmanship and complete the gruelling, 54-hour "Crucible" exercise at the end of camp. Still, compared with their counterparts in the Army, Air Force, and Navy, women marines have achieved this hard-fought progress at the rate of a slow belly crawl.

"The Marine Corps was always the most resistant of all the military services to integrating women, and continues to be," says a former female marine officer and 20-year Corps veteran, requesting anonymity.

Combat missions

By major measures of integration - the percentages of enlisted women (5.4 percent), female officers (4.4 percent), and positions open to women (62 percent) - the marines rank far below other branches. The marines remain the only US military service to run an all-female boot camp, a policy that critics say holds women back.

"Until you start integrating women at the bottom they will always be a step behind. Male marines know that from the private on up," says the former officer.

The Marine Corps counters that its main mission, combat, prevents it from opening more to women. It also vigorously defends its gender segregation policy, as do its backers in Congress.

"Our system works for us," says Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Lewis Lee. "Anything that distracts, we want to eliminate."

Last year a panel led by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum recommended resegregating all basic training along the marine model. The services resisted, and in March Defense Secretary William Cohen stopped short of adopting the change.

But the issue is still hotly debated.

This month, a House committee passed a bill that would require all services to train female recruits separately in an bid to reduce sexual misconduct in the military.

Harassment an issue

Ironically, however, the two most recent Pentagon surveys on sexual harassment show that more women marines - 64 percent in 1995 and 75 percent in 1988 - reported unwanted sexual attention than did women in any other service.

Colonel Salinas asserts that since 1995 a new Marine Corps emphasis on "core values" has improved the understanding of "acceptable behavior." The survey, she says, mainly reflects "inappropriate language" and overtures rather than "graver" problems such as sexual assault, battery, or rape.

Yet today, female officers and enlisted marines say harassment continues, as does fear of retribution for reporting it. "It happens with high-ranking officers, too," says one woman stationed at Parris Island. "They all have their faults, they're human."

Worry also lingers among women marines that they will be falsely labeled as lesbians as the legacy of a series of "witch hunts" at Parris Island in the 1980s that named scores of women homosexuals.

Despite improvements since the 1994 "don't ask, don't tell" policy took effect, military women are now receiving homosexual conduct discharges in greater numbers and at a higher rate than are men. In the Marines, isolated cases continue of the overzealous pursuit of women rumored to be gay.

Such ongoing gender issues add challenge to the already tough task of recruiting highly qualified women to become marines - and especially to fill the prestigious yet demanding job of drill instructor. (See story below.)

"People think all female drill instructors are gay," says Morgan, who conducts briefings to recruit women for the position. "I have to reassure them that's not true."

* Tomorrow spend 54 hours with female recruits as they go through "The Crucible."

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