The woman who leaves her children to work for them, the woman who makes herself available for civil defense, the woman who serves in a governmental position of responsibility, as well as the woman who participates in Reserve activity, is not less a mother for having done so. – Major Alba Martinelli Thompson, 1953 (1)
Today, CNN published a powerful image: a group of soldiers in uniform, breastfeeding their children. In the midst of a year when women continue to make history for breaking barriers in the armed forces, one of the things that is powerful about this image is that it simultaneously underscores the ability of women to be both soldiers and mothers. This dual identity has long been contested; it wasn’t until the 1970s that mothers could remain in the service at all after having children.
In the 1940s, as Congress debated the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act to allow women a permanent place in the military, the question of motherhood was on the forefront of many minds. For instance, Carl Vinson (D-GA) argued “we should not put anything in the law which should cause them [servicewomen] to hesitate getting married or to raise a family; on the contrary, we should encourage it.”(2) Today, that might sound very forward-thinking, but in 1947 and 1948, that really meant “let’s make sure women have a way out so that they can become wives and mothers.”
For the next 30 years, the assumption that women would become wives and mothers – and thus lose interest in working – underwrote all military policy regarding women in the services. Until the 1970s, motherhood in all forms (childbirth, adoption, or by marriage) meant automatic discharge for servicewomen. In fact, following Vinson’s comment, the head of the Women’s Army Corps confirmed that yes, a provision in the act that allowed easy discharge for women was designed in case of pregnancy. A few years later, President Truman further clarified policy with Executive Order 10240, which authorized women’s discharge if she:
(a) is the parent, by birth or adoption, of a child under such minimum age as the Secretary [of the branch] concerned shall determine,
(b) has personal custody of a child under such minimum age,
(c) is the step-parent of a child under such minimum age and the child is within the household of the woman for a period of more than thirty days a year ,
(d) is pregnant, or
(e) has, while serving…given birth to a living child
For 25 years following this, women consistently found themselves out of the military and thus out of work as soon as motherhood entered their lives. While some women may have welcomed or expected this policy, many others challenged it consistently through the years. In 1953, Army Reserve Major Alba Martinelli Thompson, a World War II veteran, became the first to challenge her discharge upon pregnancy.
Speaking in front of a Congressional Committee to challenge pregnancy discharge, Thompson’s words 62 years ago continue to resonate today, reflected by the thousands of women who have combined motherhood and service to their country despite what was so long deemed impractical and impossible by the military and both the executive and legislative branches.
“The woman who leaves her children to work for them, the woman who makes herself available for civil defense, the woman who serves in a governmental position of responsibility, as well as the woman who participates in Reserve activity, is not less a mother for having done so. Not because we love our children less, but because we love them more do we carry our energies and our hopes beyond the walls of our homes…Each woman serves her family who makes use of her skills and talents to bring about the greater security of her home. Some do it from within the home; some from without.”
Major Martinelli Thompson passed away two and a half years ago at the age of 94. Although she lost her bid to retain her Reserve status after becoming a mother, she went on to an active life of public engagement. She’d likely be pleased to know how much things have changed.
(1) Armed Forces Reserve Act: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate,‖ (HR 5426) 82nd Congress, Second Session, May 1952, 19-20.
(2)House Armed Services Subcommittee Hearings on S.1641, February-March 1948, 5667; Publications of the U.S. Government, Record Group 287 (RG287); National Archives Building, Washington, DC (NAB).