One of the most comprehensive studies of women’s changing role in the US military has found that they are a more racially diverse group than American men in uniform.
The study was released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Though officially banned from jobs that would put them directly in combat, female troops have seen their fair share of fighting. And they return back from war as deeply affected by it as their male comrades in arms.
The ranks of women overall in the military have increased dramatically since 1973, when the United States first established an all-volunteer force. During that time, the number of enlisted women has quadrupled from some 42,000 to 167,000.
What’s more, as the size of the US military began to shrink post-Vietnam, the share of women in the force increased from 2 percent to 14 percent.
Nearly one-third of active-duty women are black. That proportion is far higher than among males, where 16 percent of the troops are black, according to the Pew study. Moreover, only about half of active-duty women are white, compared with 71 percent of active-duty men.
Troops, whether male or female, seem to join the armed forces largely for the same reasons. More than 80 percent of both groups said they signed up to serve their country or to receive education benefits. Some 70 percent said they simply wanted to see the world.
However, the Pew study found one key difference among the groups, which points to the more precarious economic situation of women in America. Roughly 40 percent of female veterans say they joined the military “because jobs were hard to find,” compared with only one-quarter of men. While 12 percent of military women are single mothers, just 4 percent of men are single fathers.
When it comes to marriage, active-duty women tend to be less likely to have spouses than their male counterparts (46 percent of women are married, versus 58 percent of men).
The choice of spouses differs between men and women. While almost half of those women who are married selected spouses who are also in the armed forces, only 7 percent of married men are paired with military women.
Once they leave the service, women veterans tend to be considerably more critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than their male counterparts. When asked whether they thought the wars were “worth fighting,” 63 percent of female veterans say Iraq was not, versus 47 percent of male veterans. Ditto the war in Afghanistan, at 54 percent versus 39 percent.
This is a gender gap, the Pew study notes, that is not particularly apparent among the general public.
Though they see less combat, women suffer from post-traumatic stress in numbers similar to their male colleagues, according to the Pew researchers. Some 45 percent of female veterans say they frequently feel irritable or angry, and 50 percent say they have experienced strains in their family relationships (versus 47 percent and 48 percent of men, respectively).
Yet when it comes to views of their own service, male and female troops tend to agree: They value the experience that accompanied their service. More than 90 percent of women say their military service was useful in helping them “grow and mature as a person.” Three-quarters of both groups say they would advise a young person close to them to join the military.