Women on the battlefield
Women in the military will get to serve in combat. It's not exactly the vision of the future the founding mothers embraced at Seneca Falls, but, still, about time.
"I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can't say a woman's life is more valuable than a man's life," retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught once told me.
Vaught is president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. She retired from active duty in 1985, so she remembers a different era entirely. "I went to Vietnam, and when I found out I was going, the first thing I wanted to know was if I'd be trained in weapons. They told me I didn't need to be."
On Wednesday, Defense Department officials said the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended to the outgoing secretary, Leon Panetta, that the ban on women serving in combat be lifted. The transformation won't happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it's still a groundbreaking change, and, except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America ("our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness"), the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive.
It's hard to remember -- so many parts of recent history now seem hard to remember -- but it was the specter of women in combat that did more than anything else to quash the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. "We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too," Gloria Steinem recalled.
The fear of putting women in the trenches has been dispelled on two fronts. One is the changes in the way the American public thinks about women. The other is the shortage of trenches in modern warfare, when an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a service worker. In Iraq, Shoshana Johnson, a cook, was shot in both ankles, taken captive and held for 22 days. Lori Piestewa, a Native American and, like Johnson, a single mother, was a driver in the same convoy full of clerks and maintenance workers. She was steering her Humvee through mortar fire when a truck ahead of her jackknifed and her front wheel was hit by rocket fire. She was fatally injured in the crash.
Women now make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military. They've taken their posts with such seamless calm that the country barely took note. The specter opponents of the ERA warned against -- our sisters and mothers dying under fire in foreign lands -- has happened over and over. More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives includes a female double-amputee in the person of the newly elected Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former military pilot who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
Today women are on armed patrols and in fighter planes. But they can't hold some of approximately 200,000 positions officially termed "combat" that mean more pay and often provide the steppingstone for promotions.
"We only have one four-star general who's a woman," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who cheered Panetta's decision. Only recently, Gillibrand and her allies declared victory when they merely got language in the defense authorization bill requiring the Defense Department to merely study the question of women in combat.
We've come a long, heroic, sometimes tragic way. Now, the biggest concern for women in the military is not assault from the enemy as much as the danger of sexual assault from fellow members of the service. During the Iraq war, then-Rep. Jane Harman said that she had visited a veterans' hospital at which doctors told her that 41 percent of the female veterans they saw were victims of sexual assault. Because the crime is so underreported, it's impossible to say how many female service members suffer sexual assault, but 3,192 were reported in 2011.
Allowing women who currently serve in combat conditions to get the benefits of combat positions won't make that threat worse. But it might make things better, for surely the more women there are in positions of leadership in the military, the more attention will be paid.