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Women's Armed Services Integration Act, a United States law enacted on June 12, 1948, enabled women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and the recently formed Air Force. Prior to this act, women, with the exception of nurses, served in the military only in times of war. During World War II, over 150,000 women had served in the WAVES (the Navy) and the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and were still serving when the act was enacted. The act limited service of women by excluding them from aircraft and vessels of the Air Force and Navy that might engage in combat.
The Navy swore in its first six women enlistees on July 7, 1948, and later that year commissioned as a lieutenant commander Frances Lois Willoughby, who had served in World War II in the Naval Reserve, its first female doctor. Hundreds began basic training in the Army before the end of the year. The Marine Corps launched its program by inducting some of its women reservists and those who served in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in World War II. The New York Times referred to them as "'Marinettes'".
In October 1949 an Army regulation established that mothers with dependent children were ineligible to serve in the military, and female servicewomen with children under the age of 18 were to be discharged. This regulation remained in place until federal legislation in the 1970s established the inclusion of women with children in the armed forces.
In 1998, a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Act was held at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre delivered the keynote address.
Women in the military have a history that extends over 400 years into the past, throughout a large number of cultures and nations. Women have played many roles in the military, from ancient warrior women, to the women currently serving in conflicts, even though the vast majority of all combatants have been men in every culture.
Even though women serving in the military has often been controversial, relatively few women in history have fought alongside men. In the American Civil War, there were a few women who cross-dressed as men in order to fight. Fighting on the battle front as men was not the only way women involved themselves in war. Some women braved the battlefront as nurses and aides.
Despite various, though limited, roles in the armies of past societies, the role of women in the military, particularly in combat, is controversial and it is only recently that women have begun to be given a more prominent role in contemporary armed forces. As increasing numbers of countries begin to expand the role of women in their militaries, the debate continues.
Roza Shanina, a Soviet sniper during World War II, credited with 54 confirmed target hits. About 400,000 Soviet women served in front-line duty units, chiefly as medics and nurses.
From the beginning of the 1970s, most Western armies began to admit women to serve active duty. Only some of them permit women to fill active combat roles, these are: New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan. In 2011 and 2012, the U.S. Defense Department began looking at loosening its near-universal ban on women serving in direct positions of combat, including ground combat, as opposed to other prominent but non-combat positions (for example, two women second lieutenants were allowed to try, but did not successfully complete, the grueling U.S. Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course). In 2013, the United States Armed Forces overturned a 1994 rule banning women from serving in certain combat positions, potentially clearing the way for the presence of women in front-line units and elite commando teams.
Women in the Russian and Soviet military, as in other nations, have played an important role in their country's military history, in particular during the Great Patriotic War. Despite performing various duties in the armies throughout Russian history, it was in the 20th century that women began to be given a more prominent role. Women of Russia and the Soviet Union played a significant role in World Wars, especially during World War II; arguably a greater role than in other combatant nations, although attitudes towards their contribution was occasionally paternalistic and reluctant.
In 1938, the British took the lead worldwide in establishing uniformed services for women, in addition to the small nurses units that had long been in operation.