Women have served in the front lines of the military for many years, but now, for the first time ever, they will actually be recognized for it.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that he has decided the time for a fully inclusive military has come. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are expected to formally announce the policy shift later, but the effect of the change will likely roll out incrementally. Each branch of the military must develop plans to open jobs in combat units like the infantry. From there it becomes a question of literally filling the ranks.
The move overturns a 1994 rule that bans women in combat. According to early reports, military services will have until January 2016 to seek any special exemptions for positions they believe should remain closed to women. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, issued a to-the-point statement endorsing the move. “I support it,” Levin said. “It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”
We don’t have to look any further than Congress to understand that women face nearly identical risks to men serving overseas. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Il) lost both legs while serving in combat support. Yet like thousands of other women in the military, because of the 1994 ban, that role is not considered combat, which means women like Duckworth, while facing all the risks associated with military service, receive none of the benefits like increased pay and opportunity for promotion.
Carried over time, those restrictions amount to women being closed out of advancement in the single largest governmental employer. And when we talk about the need for military culture to change, that’s a need that is as much top-down as it is bottom-up. Yes, male infantry soldiers will have to see women as equal partners, just as they must see soldiers of color and their LGBT colleagues as equal partners as well. That’s a change that won’t happen just by serving with them, but by taking orders from them.
Lifting the combat ban has the potential to address another searing problem plaguing the military: sexual assault. Women soldiers face an epidemic of rape and sexual abuse by their superiors and fellow soldiers with very little aside from ongoing cover-ups being done about this problem. It’s hard not to hope for a sea-change in a culture that views women as expendable support staff and treats sexual assault and rape as a job hazard.
Now, an announcement of a policy shift alone will not makes these things happen. Nor will simply opening up job positions cause the military to magically transform into a panacea of equality. But. As we’ve seen with the advancements of African-Americans and Latinos in the military, the armed services does remain one of the last avenues for working poor to fight their way to the middle class. This avenue just opened up for thousands of women.
Even if very few women take advantage of it, so what? Even by removing the idea that women can’t become generals simply because of their gender, we’ve struck down one more pillar of discrimination that has artificially propped up our military ranks for far too long. And yes, just because more women may rise to leadership positions doesn’t mean the culture of the military will change or that a rape epidemic will end. But we can say for certain that without this important policy shift, our country can be guaranteed that needed change will not happen.
Photo from The U.S. Army via flickr.