Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Formation among Women in the U.S. Military: Evidence from the NLSY

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Formation among Women in the U.S. Military: Evidence from the NLSY

Article excerpt

Although female employment is associated with lower levels of completed fertility in the civilian world, we find family formation rates among U.S. military women to be comparatively high. We compare enlisted women with civilian women using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 3,547), the only data set to measure simultaneously the nuptiality and fertility of both populations. Using propensity score matching, we show that the fertility effect derives primarily from early marriage in the military, a surprisingly "family-friendly" institution. This shows that specific organizational and economic incentives in a working environment may offset the more widespread contemporary social and economic factors that otherwise depress marriage and fertility.

Key Words: family formation, fertility, marriage, U.S. military.

The U.S. military is, to a first approximation, a "total institution" in Goffman's (1961) classic formulation. Activities are conducted in the same place under a hierarchical authority, in the company of like others charged with identical duties. Scheduling is severe and imposed from above, in service to a larger institutional plan. The sublimation of individual interests to institutional goals is extreme, up to and including the sacrifice of one's own life. Short of this, but still extreme in comparative perspective, are the time demands and dislocation fostered by episodic deployment overseas, on ship, and in bases scattered throughout the United States.

The U.S. military is also, in the post-Vietnam era, substantially staffed by young women. Total institutions are, in theory, incompatible with family life. But the volunteer military, which must compete for adherents, turns out to be quite "family friendly." In the civilian world, there appears to be a causal mechanism linking female employment to lower completed levels of fertility (Angrist & Evans, 1998; Goldin, 1997). Yet in the military, marriage is prevalent and levels of fertility are as high if not higher than those found among similar women in civilian life. We demonstrate this by comparing, for 1979-1984, the military sample of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79) with selected women from civilian samples.


When an all-volunteer force replaced the U.S. military draft in 1973, a 2% cap on women's representation in the military effectively came to an end, resulting in an immediate increase in the population of enlisted women. The decision to increase the percentage of women in the military was controversial because there was concern that a reliance on female military personnel would compromise combat readiness. The primary argument against admission of women focused on biological sex differences, including pregnancy. Until 1975, the U.S. military had a policy of automatic discharge for any pregnant female soldier. Following a series of lawsuits, military policy was revised to give pregnant female soldiers the choice of whether to exit or remain (Francke, 1997). A 1976 Army review committee recommended that the mandatory discharge policy be restored because surveyed commanders reported that pregnancy caused enlisted women to lose twice the amount of time as men, that half of the lost time of female officers was attributable to pregnancy, and that pregnancy negatively affected the morale of other service members (Army Administrators, 1978). A 1982 Army report on enlisted women concluded that pregnancy was enough of a problem for the Reagan administration to call for a temporary halt to the further recruitment of women (Feinman, 2000). Ten years later, a commission undertaken to assess women's roles in the Persian Gulf War echoed similar concerns (The presidential commission, 1992).

The military releases few statistics regarding female enlistees and pregnancy. Most of what is publicly known derives from journalism. The Persian Gulf War and the intervention in Bosnia were the first major military engagements to involve female soldiers on a large scale. …

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