A sometimes snuck into combat disguised as men,

gunshot could not stop Deborah Sampson. Neither could the gash from a Redcoat’s
sword. The epidemic however, did, and even though the sickness did not take
Deborah Sampson’s life, it did kill Robert Shurtleff.


the onset of the United States, there has been controversy regarding women
serving in America’s wars. In the Revolutionary War, women sometimes snuck into
combat disguised as men, but when discovered they were discharged and sent away
from the front lines. Deborah Sampson was one of these fearless women who
entered a “Light Infantry Unit” under the pseudo Robert Shurtleff. Sampson was
hundreds of years ahead of American society because at the time, it was
expected that women serve in the role of nurses or medical personnel and carry
out duties like cooking, nursing, and sowing uniforms. (Add a little more on Sampson) As the
United States has progressed, the role of women in combat has expanded from
numerous Congressional Acts, Presidential Orders, and Department of Defense
policy changes. Over the years, the overarching laws on women serving in combat
have become less stringent and gradually offered women more opportunities in
the military. A gradual evolution that has resulted in the current policy that
allows any soldier to serve in any role regardless of gender. Even though all
positions in the military have been opened to women, pushback still remains as
many in the United States military oppose women serving in direct combat
positions.  This paper looks at why this
pushback in the military exists and why some American leaders continue to
support exclusionary policies for women in the military, and the complex issues
surrounding women serving in combat. It further looks at what US policies need
to be reviewed and updated to allow the transition of women into direct combat
units. Before going into these issues, and to better provide insight in how
women’s military roles have evolved from their original beginnings as support
personnel, this paper first looks at the history of women in the American

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the Revolutionary War, many women followed their husbands to war out of
necessity. Those that did served in roles as aforementioned mentioned as
nurses, cooks, and seamstresses. Between the Revolutionary War and World War I,
women continue to fill similar roles in conflicts like the Civil War and the
Spanish American War. Finally in the tail end of World War I, women were
allowed to join the

military. 33,000 women officially
serve as nurses and support staff during the war as part of the newly
established Army and Navy Nurse Corps.1 However,
regulations at the time made it so that these women held no military rank and did
not have benefits that were afforded to their male counterparts.


1947, Congress passed the Army-Navy Nurse Act. This act allowed nurses into the
officer ranks of the regular Army and Navy, but they could rise no higher than
the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 5 The passage of the Women’s Armed Services
Integration Act in 1948 made large strides by bringing women into the regular
military, but did little to improve equality. At the time women only made up
two percent of the force and faced lower pay caps, denied spousal benefits for
their husbands, and were not allowed to have command authority over men. 6  Furthermore, the Women’s Armed Services
Integration Act in 1948 also restricted women from serving on Navy ships and
aircraft that engaged in combat missions.


the conclusion of World War II, an Executive Order 10240 was issued,
authorizing the military to discharge any women who became pregnant or who
adopted a child while in service. This order lasted until the 1970s when the
military ended the mandate for separation based on pregnancy and allowed
voluntary separation for new mothers. 4 The 1970s also saw the Supreme Court case of Frontiero v. Richardson which opened
ROTC to women, allowed women to attend war colleges, and opened the intelligence,
public affairs, maintenance, chaplain, and civil engineering fields to women. 8


1993, more exclusions were lifted by Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense at the
time, allowing women to serve in the aviation field and pilot aircraft for the
first time. At the same time, the Pentagon also declared, “Service members are
eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except
that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level
whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”2


Combat Exclusion Policy of 1993 remained in effect for more than twenty years,
until in 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a memorandum to the
secretaries of all military departments, to open all military occupational
specialties to women. In it, Carter wrote, “Anyone, who can meet operationally
relevant and gender neutral standards, regardless of gender, should have the
opportunity to serve in any position.”3


current policy allowing women to serve in all military positions is a
representation of the times today. In the War in Iraq and Afghanistan there is
no agreed upon battlefield and every serviceman and servicewoman is at risk of
being attacked by a uniform-less enemy that does not abide by the Laws of War
outlined by the Geneva Conventions. There is no traditional “front lines” on the
battlefield. Today’s battlefield is non-linear and often attacks will come from
every direction on unsuspecting targets. Even when the Ground Combat Exclusion
policy was in place, women were serving and seeing ground combat. They were
just as vulnerable to being injured, killed, captured, and blown up by improvised
explosive devices. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women may not have been
allowed to serve in combat focused units, but 139 of them died from combat
related injuries.4
These  sacrifices and the bravery of
women like Deborah Sampson and the nurses of the World Wars demonstrate that
the Combat Exclusion Policy did not exclude women from combat, pointing to why
the Department of Defense removed it and allowed women into combat units.

Although women are allowed in any job permitted they are qualified, it does not
mean they are welcome.


            In a 2015 survey given to over
7,000 members of the United States Special Operations community, “85 percent of
the 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 was
that women will cause social distractions in previously all male units, aren’t
strong enough, and in response standards will be lowered to allow women into these
highly competitive units. The United States Marine Corps published the findings
of 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 the


seen by this study and the survey of the Special Operations community, women
are 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 physiologically
capable enough to fulfill the job of a soldier in a unit who’s mission is to
close with and destroy the enemy. The Marine Corp’s study found that
“40.5 percent of women participating suffered some form of musculoskeletal
injury, while 18.8 percent of men did. Twenty-one women lost time in the unit
due to injuries, 19 of whom suffered injuries to their lower extremities. Of those, 16 women
were injured while carrying heavy loads in an organized movement, like a Ruckmarch.”7


            Furthermore, a Commission on the
Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces stated, that “Most women are shorter in
stature, have less muscle mass, and weigh less than men. These physiological
differences place women at a distinct disadvantage when performing tasks
requiring a high level of muscular strength and aerobic capacity, such as
hand-to-hand fighting, digging, carrying heavy loads, lifting, and other tasks
central to ground combat.”115


            While some would point to the Marine
Corps study and this Commission as evidence that women should not be allowed to
serve in every role the military has to offer, it does not because it focuses
on 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 “equal
participation by men and women”8, but to allow equal
opportunity. All military members enter as individuals, and their career
advancement is judged by their effectiveness in their position and role. Advancement
is merit-based. The generalization that all women are weak takes away this merit-based
approach and creates a double standard in the military.


            There is a double standard because
the Army for example, does not submit male recruits to any sort of physical
strength examinations before assigning them to ground combat positions. They
receive their position based on a combination of aptitude tests, medical screenings,
and personal preferences.


            While many men
possess the physical strength and stamina to be in “ground combat” positions,
many other men do not. Men should not be deemed qualified for physical demands
of combat positions on the basis of their gender and women who possess the
requisite physical strength and stamina should not be excluded from combat assignments
on the basis of their gender. Instead, eligibility should turn on whether the
recruit—male or female—meets the physical qualifications for the job. Again,
physical qualification is currently based on whether the recruit can complete
the initial training for the assigned specialty.