18 Apr /13

An army of one: America’s road to gender equality

With the stroke of a proverbial pen, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has effectively changed the lives and opportunities of America’s enlisted women. When Panetta signed into law the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to overturn a 1994 ruling that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units, he laid the foundation for what is likely to become one of the most fundamental structural changes of the armed forces in recent history. For the 14% of enlisted military personnel who are women, the easing of restrictions will allow them to serve in various ground-combat roles, including infantry positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service. While lifting the ban of women in combat roles is certainly a watershed moment, in actuality, it also represents a natural progression that began after the Second World War and had reached its previous climax in 1993 with the inclusion of female pilots in aerial combat missions.

Previously, the exclusion of women from ground combat was based around the nature of the positions, which require a high degree of physical strength and – in the case of special operations positions- the ability to endure physical hardship for an extended period of time. The argument was that, since the majority of women couldn’t meet the physical demands, there was no need to open the positions to women. Considering the make-up of the military until 25 years ago as well as the restrictions placed on women, this argument became cyclical and self-fulfilling. Now, as women have proven themselves capable of handling expanded military roles, the previous argument has been called into question. So, what is the solution?

Besides advocates of the rather flimsy hygiene and endurance arguments frequently cited to support the exclusion of women, few can see a fundamental problem with gender equality in ground-combat situations provided that certain physical requirements are met. The problem, however, is the interpretation of the requirements themselves. Some fear that opening and promoting these positions for women will either lead to the implementation of a “two-tiered” system of qualifications or that this will serve to lessen the overall quality of training for soldiers in these areas, especially in a time of conflict. While lifting the ban of women in combat jobs has gotten the ball rolling, enduring change will not happen overnight. Undoubtedly, critics will remain skeptical until their hesitations have been proven wrong, a process that will take time and force the services to develop sustainable plans for allowing women to pursue the combat positions they are now legally entitled to while at the same time creating a structure that will enable the armed forces as a whole to benefit from this new legislation.

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