Women have been serving -- and dying -- on the front lines of our military in positions considered to be non-combat roles for years, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to an Associated Press article published Thursday, women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. The article states that more than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the military operations there. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
On Thursday Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, signed an order that will remove limits from women who are among those fighting for our country. They ordered 238,000 positions -- including those in elite units such as the Navy SEALS, the Army Rangers and the Green Berets -- open to service members regardless of gender.
Per the AP, the move overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs and the use of one arm when her helicopter crew was shot down in 2004, said allowing women into combat roles is necessary in a time when the military is an all-volunteer force.
"I think that this opens up a pool of folks who could serve in these positions. Any time that we’ve opened up our military to performance-based service ... we’ve benefited as a military. This is good for the nation," she told CNN.
The armed services have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.
The announcement that women will be allowed into combat roles netted a ho-hum reaction from the Christian Science Monitor, which deemed the action "so yesterday" in an article published Thursday. The article stated, "Officially allowing women into all combat areas may take until 2016 and could still come with minor qualifiers. Still, to many, the decision is not all that surprising. That fact alone points to a little-acknowledged trend in recent history: Humans have accelerated the pace of overcoming barriers to physical limitations - and not just bodily limits."
Opponents of putting women in combat have said women lack the strength and stamina for certain jobs, and have said a female’s presence might negatively impact military unit cohesion. Others have said the Americans won’t be able to stomach large(r) numbers of women being killed in combat situations.
The Associated Press reported that last year the Marine Corps sought women to go through its tough infantry course last year; two women volunteered and both failed to complete the course. However, in the Navy women have already begun moving into the submarine force.
"Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier. So women will compete," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., told the AP. "We’re not asking that standards be lowered. We’re saying that if they can be effective and they can be a good soldier or a good Marine in that particular operation, then give them a shot."
Women in combat roles, of course, will face the same dire consequences of battle and capture that men do. Those dangers are now very real for women already serving in the armed forces and dying for the U.S.
It was just 93 years ago, in 1920, that the Constitution’s 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
Allowing women to compete for combat roles is just one of many steps toward gender equality in the U.S., assuming that’s where we’re headed.
Equal pay is a topic for another day.