Agunshot could not stop Deborah Sampson. Neither could the gash from a Redcoat’ssword. The epidemic however, did, and even though the sickness did not takeDeborah Sampson’s life, it did kill Robert Shurtleff. Sincethe onset of the United States, there has been controversy regarding womenserving in America’s wars. In the Revolutionary War, women sometimes snuck intocombat disguised as men, but when discovered they were discharged and sent awayfrom the front lines.
Deborah Sampson was one of these fearless women whoentered a “Light Infantry Unit” under the pseudo Robert Shurtleff. Sampson washundreds of years ahead of American society because at the time, it wasexpected that women serve in the role of nurses or medical personnel and carryout duties like cooking, nursing, and sowing uniforms. (Add a little more on Sampson) As theUnited States has progressed, the role of women in combat has expanded fromnumerous Congressional Acts, Presidential Orders, and Department of Defensepolicy changes. Over the years, the overarching laws on women serving in combathave become less stringent and gradually offered women more opportunities inthe military.
A gradual evolution that has resulted in the current policy thatallows any soldier to serve in any role regardless of gender. Even though allpositions in the military have been opened to women, pushback still remains asmany in the United States military oppose women serving in direct combatpositions. This paper looks at why thispushback in the military exists and why some American leaders continue tosupport exclusionary policies for women in the military, and the complex issuessurrounding women serving in combat. It further looks at what US policies needto be reviewed and updated to allow the transition of women into direct combatunits. Before going into these issues, and to better provide insight in howwomen’s military roles have evolved from their original beginnings as supportpersonnel, this paper first looks at the history of women in the Americanmilitary.
Inthe Revolutionary War, many women followed their husbands to war out ofnecessity. Those that did served in roles as aforementioned mentioned asnurses, cooks, and seamstresses. Between the Revolutionary War and World War I,women continue to fill similar roles in conflicts like the Civil War and theSpanish American War. Finally in the tail end of World War I, women wereallowed to join themilitary. 33,000 women officiallyserve as nurses and support staff during the war as part of the newlyestablished Army and Navy Nurse Corps.
1 However,regulations at the time made it so that these women held no military rank and didnot have benefits that were afforded to their male counterparts. In1947, Congress passed the Army-Navy Nurse Act. This act allowed nurses into theofficer ranks of the regular Army and Navy, but they could rise no higher thanthe rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
5 The passage of the Women’s Armed ServicesIntegration Act in 1948 made large strides by bringing women into the regularmilitary, but did little to improve equality. At the time women only made uptwo percent of the force and faced lower pay caps, denied spousal benefits fortheir husbands, and were not allowed to have command authority over men. 6 Furthermore, the Women’s Armed ServicesIntegration Act in 1948 also restricted women from serving on Navy ships andaircraft that engaged in combat missions.
Followingthe conclusion of World War II, an Executive Order 10240 was issued,authorizing the military to discharge any women who became pregnant or whoadopted a child while in service. This order lasted until the 1970s when themilitary ended the mandate for separation based on pregnancy and allowedvoluntary separation for new mothers. 4 The 1970s also saw the Supreme Court case of Frontiero v. Richardson which openedROTC to women, allowed women to attend war colleges, and opened the intelligence,public affairs, maintenance, chaplain, and civil engineering fields to women. 8 In1993, more exclusions were lifted by Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense at thetime, allowing women to serve in the aviation field and pilot aircraft for thefirst time.
At the same time, the Pentagon also declared, “Service members areeligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, exceptthat women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade levelwhose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”2 TheCombat Exclusion Policy of 1993 remained in effect for more than twenty years,until in 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a memorandum to thesecretaries of all military departments, to open all military occupationalspecialties to women. In it, Carter wrote, “Anyone, who can meet operationallyrelevant and gender neutral standards, regardless of gender, should have theopportunity to serve in any position.”3 Thecurrent policy allowing women to serve in all military positions is arepresentation of the times today. In the War in Iraq and Afghanistan there isno agreed upon battlefield and every serviceman and servicewoman is at risk ofbeing attacked by a uniform-less enemy that does not abide by the Laws of Waroutlined by the Geneva Conventions. There is no traditional “front lines” on thebattlefield. Today’s battlefield is non-linear and often attacks will come fromevery direction on unsuspecting targets. Even when the Ground Combat Exclusionpolicy was in place, women were serving and seeing ground combat.
They werejust as vulnerable to being injured, killed, captured, and blown up by improvisedexplosive devices. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women may not have beenallowed to serve in combat focused units, but 139 of them died from combatrelated injuries.4These sacrifices and the bravery ofwomen like Deborah Sampson and the nurses of the World Wars demonstrate thatthe Combat Exclusion Policy did not exclude women from combat, pointing to whythe Department of Defense removed it and allowed women into combat units.Although women are allowed in any job permitted they are qualified, it does notmean they are welcome. In a 2015 survey given to over7,000 members of the United States Special Operations community, “85 percent ofthe respondents said they oppose opening the special operations jobs to women,and 70 percent oppose having women in their individual units.”5 Behind their reasoning wasthat women will cause social distractions in previously all male units, aren’tstrong enough, and in response standards will be lowered to allow women into thesehighly competitive units. The United States Marine Corps published the findingsof a study in 2015 outlining that, “women were injured twice as often as men,less accurate shots and not as good at removing wounded troops from thebattlefield.”6 Asseen by this study and the survey of the Special Operations community, womenare often seen as unfit for serving in combat units for a multitude of reasons.
The first being that women are too soft for combat and are physiologicallycapable enough to fulfill the job of a soldier in a unit who’s mission is toclose with and destroy the enemy. The Marine Corp’s study found that”40.5 percent of women participating suffered some form of musculoskeletalinjury, while 18.8 percent of men did.
Twenty-one women lost time in the unitdue to injuries, 19 of whom suffered injuries to their lower extremities. Of those, 16 womenwere injured while carrying heavy loads in an organized movement, like a Ruckmarch.”7 Furthermore, a Commission on theAssignment of Women in the Armed Forces stated, that “Most women are shorter instature, have less muscle mass, and weigh less than men. These physiologicaldifferences place women at a distinct disadvantage when performing tasksrequiring a high level of muscular strength and aerobic capacity, such ashand-to-hand fighting, digging, carrying heavy loads, lifting, and other taskscentral to ground combat.”115 While some would point to the MarineCorps study and this Commission as evidence that women should not be allowed toserve in every role the military has to offer, it does not because it focuseson groups of women versus groups of men and not on individual case by case basis.The 2015 decision to open up all jobs to women was not made to ensure “equalparticipation by men and women”8, but to allow equalopportunity.
All military members enter as individuals, and their careeradvancement is judged by their effectiveness in their position and role. Advancementis merit-based. The generalization that all women are weak takes away this merit-basedapproach and creates a double standard in the military. There is a double standard becausethe Army for example, does not submit male recruits to any sort of physicalstrength examinations before assigning them to ground combat positions.
Theyreceive their position based on a combination of aptitude tests, medical screenings,and personal preferences. While many menpossess the physical strength and stamina to be in “ground combat” positions,many other men do not. Men should not be deemed qualified for physical demandsof combat positions on the basis of their gender and women who possess therequisite physical strength and stamina should not be excluded from combat assignmentson the basis of their gender.
Instead, eligibility should turn on whether therecruit—male or female—meets the physical qualifications for the job. Again,physical qualification is currently based on whether the recruit can completethe initial training for the assigned specialty.