BREAKING: Military lifts ban on women serving in combat

Well, it’s about time.

Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military’s ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

Last year, the Pentagon made a move towards this policy change by opening up thousands more combat positions to women. And, of course, women have been risking their lives–and sometimes losing them–on the front lines for awhile now. Any tired sexist arguments about how they’re not up for the task were made moot by the fact that, like it or not, they’ve already been doing it

As Marine Corps Captain Zoe Bedell explained, “[The female marines] patrolled every day with the infantry, and sometimes twice a day. They lived every day on the same combat outposts in remote corners of Afghanistan. They wore the same gear and they carried the same rifles, and when the unit was attacked, my marines fought back.”

And now they’ll finally be get the credit–and opportunities–that come from having that service recognized.

Image via.

Combat Exclusion for Women Should No Longer Be the Rule
Lifting ban on women in combat

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Lindsey Weedston

    I guess if they’re going to let the gays be gay, they might as well let the women soldiers be all the way soldiers. Progress, 2013!

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    Hooray! Now, we’ll have families mourning the loss of daughters, moms, sisters, and wives as well as sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands, as well as casualties, PTSD, and body bags!

    Yeah, I know that this means I have no soul and I’m going to Hell and whatever, but I’ve never been a fan of “Insert-non-white-male-group-here” serving in military activism. Joining the army is nothing but an equal opportunity employer for getting horrifically killed.

    • Sam L-L

      I’m vegetarian and think it’s immoral for anyone to kill animals for food, but if it were illegal for women to work in slaughterhouses and you wanted to become a butcher, I would support you overturning that unjust, sexist law.

      In addition, I think your expressed opinion reinforces our society’s harmful sexist gender role of men as the disposable gender whose deaths are less worth caring about. (If you don’t care about that, the flip side of that is the harmful sexist gender role of women as valuable objects that must be protected.)

      • Matt Markonis

        The way to deal with the empathy deficit for men in the military is to educate people and work on building a more compassionate society, etc. Making women’s lives equally disposable is not just or constructive (two wrongs don’t make a right).

        It’s bizarre that you would prioritize the ideology of equal rights above your own moral views. It seems poorly reasoned. In practical terms it sounds to me as though you merely think you hold that view.

        Also, what exactly is harmful about the “sexist gender role of women as valuable objects that must be protected?” Aren’t the real harms objectification and dependency and not the human needs of love and safety to which you refer? It’s fatuous to argue that valuing and protecting women is harmful when the real problem lies in the way it’s done, viz. their being perceived as objects and dependents.

        • Brian

          “It’s bizarre that you would prioritize the ideology of equal rights above your own moral views.”

          I don’t want to speak for Sam, but I would say that for me, equal rights are part and parcel of my moral views.

          • Matt Markonis

            Ok, that’s a reasonable objection. But it’s kind of like the formulation of Evelyn Beatrice Hall attributed to Voltaire which says: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” My point is that the claim (“I disapprove of what you do, but I will defend to the death your right to do it”) lacks the moral clarity of the famous sentence.

            I suppose there are a variety of ways to interpret the ambiguity: you might simply prioritize the equal rights of people over the killing of animals on the pragmatic basis that nobody seems to care what you vegetarians think, you might believe in normative moral relativism which says that “because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it,” or you might be a lawyer.

            My view is better explained by Noam Chomsky, who says that, “maybe the most… elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.”

    • Seisy

      Well, to be frank, nothing about equal opportunities to get killed is changing. We already have families mourning the loss of daughters, moms, sisters, and wives as well as sons, fathers, brothers and husbands…as well as women with PTSD, women casualties, women veterans. That’s kind of the point. The thing worth celebrating here is that it’s a big step towards equal opportunities/treatment/respect. As I understand it, combat experience is key to being able to rise up the ladder (wasn’t their some very qualified woman turned down from a position training female soldiers recently because, despite having been in combat, she hadn’t been part of a combat unit?). And with the way war has shifted, these “non-combat” women *were* in combat, but without the benefits/respect that come with the official status. So regardless of how any of us feel about the military or the wars or whatever, I think it’s still a good thing, since what we’re really talking about here is how women (or gay people, or minorities) in the military are treated, not whether they’re participating (which is up to them, after all). And I think it’s important to demolish discriminatory policies in something as official and visible as the military. It makes the fight a lot harder to have the government condoning discrimination, especially on the scale of something like the military, which employs a hell of a lot of people, and is greatly respected by the general populace.

      • John

        I think the point is that men are being killed at 6 times their proportion in Iraq. Whatever is being done to shield women is greatly reducing their likelihood of being killed.

    • Linda

      Jacqueline, that’s an extremely offensive and unfair declaration of yours regarding the military (re: “Joining the army is…”). That statement is actually dehumanizing soldiers further as just mere objects of warfare, to be killed or to survive…. Which is not only a huge insult to those people who have enlisted, but their families and loved ones.

      And no, saying that doesn’t mean you have no soul and are going to hell. It is just a reflection of ignorance regarding military service, as well as the complexities and purpose behind a soldier’s decision to enlist.

      • Jacqueline Hentzen

        In response to everyone who responded — I. Don’t. Care. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that we would be better off without an army, period. I think we would be better off without an armed forces, navy, marines, and what-have-you. So, celebrating the fact that women are now allowed to participate in such a degrading and morally reprehensible organization turns my stomach.

        Forgive me if I don’t feel quite so enthusiastic about it. (Note: I don’t want forgiveness of any kind.)

        • honeybee

          I also cannot support the military nor do I understand those who defend it. It’s completely anti to all my feminist beliefs.

          I agree we need a small army for protection and special types of missions but we should get rid of 95% of what we have now.

  • a male

    Women are injured, traumatized and killed in combat today. Women in uniform in law enforcement or firefighting face the same risks as men, and I don’t hear credible reports that services suffer as a result. I see this decision as an opportunity for women who would like to broaden their horizons in a military career as well.

    • Teresa

      Female firefighter/paramedic (former) here.

      Thanks for making that point.

      It’s actually a pretty raging battle in public safety. The official verdict is no, they can’t exclude us from hiring. But there’s an old saying around the fire station: “A crew with a woman on it is short a man.” So the back-door bullying is the main line of attack now; you can’t be fired for being a woman, but you can get frozen out. They can vote you off the island, and if you don’t get the hint, they can set you up.

      Here are two jokes I heard literally three or more times each day for my first six months of paramedic school:

      Q: What do you call a woman with a black eye?
      A: Hard of hearing.

      Q: What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?
      A: Nothing, you already told her twice.

      They didn’t think of it as bullying.

      The culture war is between the Christian, white, male, hetero, alcoholic jock and everybody who doesn’t fit into that description. Every service is different, and every shift at every service is different. Most places are in the medium-sexist range. I worked at one place with mature, intelligent men. They were excellent to work with, and they relished having women on their crew.

      Sexual assault in the military (as well as other forms of bullying) are so rampant that there’s a special acronym for it — “MST,” or “military sexual trauma.” The military is also an inherently classist structure with a strong history of racism and general bias.

      While I’m not pro-war or pro-military, the reality is that this was a huge win in this profoundly opaque community.

      • a male

        If a woman fairly met the requirements for a job (I know there are some differing standards, see “2012 Physical Fitness Standards for the US Army” for example), and can do the job, she is qualified. The organization is not “short a man.” It is not the women’s fault that there were not enough qualified men. On CNN, I saw some military commentator griping that on tank crews, for example, a soldier is required to handle shells weighing sixty some pounds, as if that action in itself disqualified women. If there are female soldiers who can perform that task, or capable of other duties that men do, why not allow women to do them as well?

  • Dave

    I fully support women being able to engage in combat. However, I believe women’s physical test requirements be raised to the same level as the men. In extreme training that some forces endure (think seal team six) there is no faster way to create resentment than one, or some of the squad having to endure less pain than the rest.

  • ktsetsi

    Two days before this lift on the ban was announced, I created a petition at to require women to register for Selective Service. Regardless of how anyone feels about the draft, the registry continues to exist, and if men have to sign up, so should women if we want to be militarily “equal.”

    The full argument for it is at this link, but I’ll just post the final paragraphs here:

    How could we as feminists, or at the very least as people who have fought for equality in the military, not be interested in women being eligible for the draft? Equality can’t only desirable to us when it’s pretty and convenient, when it’s a benefit. When it means we get to do what we want to do – but not when it means we might have to suffer some of the consequences. As a friend so eloquently put it recently, “At least some of feminism has to mean renouncing the few unfair privileges that women do enjoy.”

    I know I couldn’t respect myself if I would argue for a woman’s right to be in the military, to be assigned to combat duty, but be content to let men shoulder the burden of the draft. I might as well insist on having the right to leave the sidewalk by myself as long as there’s a man nearby to carry me over the gutter-puddle when it rains.

    If I argued that women should be in the military and didn’t put equal effort into making us eligible for the draft, I wouldn’t really be a feminist at all, would I? I’d just be an opportunist.

    For real equality, here’s the petition:

    • Matt Markonis

      Your argument would be more realistic if the issue were about whether or not to serve in a U.S. military that fought wars of self-defense against an aggressor for the survival of the country and its population. But that’s not the case. U.S. conflicts are about hegemony and geostrategy. Non-participation in the militarization of the world is not opportunism, it’s principled dissent. This is just a politically correct way of trying to increase recruitment. Moreover, when you consider the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the military it’s quite obvious this isn’t a progressive move.

      • ktsetsi

        My argument is realistic because a) women want equality in the military, regardless of what kind of military we have; b) women have fought to have the ban on combat roles lifted. If women who claim to be feminists claim to want “equality,” they will be equally interested in shouldering the less than convenient responsibility of being required to register for the draft, just like men are. Otherwise, I can’t help but see all of this “we want equality” rhetoric as insincere and selfish. It’s “want want want” and no “give.” I’m disheartened to see that this perspective hasn’t been treated with more interest by the community of feministing, that alerting the members of this website to the petition didn’t generate more signatures. So much for wanting equality.

        • Matt Markonis

          There is some precedent to this line of reasoning. Black people historically fought for the U.S. in large numbers in order to secure equal rights with at best mixed results. The reality then as now is that military service is largely a class issue motivated by the lack of social programs in the U.S. such as taxpayer-funded post-secondary education and health care. Service is not really voluntary; it is coerced and incentivized.

          Any discussion of equal rights in a military context should include the reality of feminist solidarity between women in the U.S. and other countries where equal rights are not being promoted by U.S. military interventions, arms deals, support for non-democratic governments and dictators, etc. There is also the burden of sexual assault in the military and related trauma.

          I’m encouraged by women who remain skeptical of arguments delegitimizing their self-interested, non-violent wants, informed choices and political demands and who remain moral agents while others try to guilt them into serving an ultranationalist military-industrial complex “regardless of what kind of military we have,” etc.

      • Tiffany

        Very well put Matt. This is definetely a confusion of srtiving for equality. As a weapon of patriarchy (war), requiring women to be drafted is not my idea of equality. It’s further indoctrination into a hegemonic system that finds all involved disposable at the hands of violence and obsession with control. No one should have to particapte in that.

    • Sam L-L

      Wouldn’t it be more sensible to eliminate involuntary conscription entirely, standing as it does in direct opposition to our foundational values of freedom and inviolable human rights?

  • rocinante3d

    Current wars as shown by (Iraq, Afghanistan and others) seem to require special operators (Rangers, Delta Force and the like). Small units of Marines and other special operators that can survive of the land for long periods of time are becoming de rigeur. The need to be physically fit and resilient under all circumstances is more the norm than the exception. In order to maintain muscle mass for long periods of time you need testosterone, unfortunately.

    Having women serving in combats is social engineering that serves no purpose. The armed forces is perhaps the most gender neutral place in America. Why is the Sec Def messing with it?

    • ktsetsi

      Because combat roles lead to career advancement and opportunities that, before the ban was lifted, were only open to men. The lift on the ban doesn’t mean women will be required to fill combat roles; it means they can volunteer and try to qualify. If they can qualify, if they prove capable, they can fill a combat role.

    • Sam L-L

      May I suggest carefully reading up on the history of Russian partisans in World War II before you dismiss women as “special operators that can cuvive of the land for long periods of time”?

  • a male

    I am quite aware for years, because news reports have mentioned it; that “allowing” women in uniform to expand their roles is simply a “politically correct” way of expanding recruitment, because there were years after 2001 where recruiters fell far short of their goals. That was why restrictions on age, criminal record, tattoos, or minimum education level were loosened, for example.

    I also read recently that precisely because women could then be considered eligible to register for selective service, that this would also be a good opportunity to reconsider the need for men to register.

    Is the purpose of the US military national defense, or to exert its muscle around the world? Is serving in the military something women, feminists, or anyone, something that people should want to do?

    I consider all those to be separate issues. I see removing barriers to women, gays, people of color, as milestones in themselves. Perhaps one day people will also believe that body size, shape, or being “able bodied” are not as important to someone at a technical or desk job, as in the infantry. Does someone need to be Marine fit to monitor communications while sitting in a US base? Can they not speak or operate a system while sitting in a wheelchair, for example? Can an “obese” person or injured former pilot not operate a drone over Afghanistan just fine from their seat in their US base?

    • Matt Markonis

      What you’re talking about is basically apolitical. It may be an effective strategy to present them as separate issues to an uncritical public that is under pressure to compartmentalize their lives, but it’s illusory to suggest they’re not interconnected.