“The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who’s going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand
Women have been in combat roles for thousands of years.
In 1200 BC, Fu Hao of the Shang Dynasty was the most powerful general of her time; she directed an army of 13,000 soldiers in the earliest-recorded large-scale ambush in Chinese history.
Around 60 AD, Queen Boudica and her army killed 80,000 Romans in an uprising that nearly forced Rome out of Britain.
The legendary Joan of Arc commanded the French army in the Hundred Years’ War — recapturing Paris and setting a new paradigm for military strategy.
And, in more modern times, the Soviet Union demonstrated female fighting power in both the air and on the ground. They sent 2,000 female snipers to the front in World War II, including Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who had 309 confirmed kills. They were also responsible for some of the first female fighter pilots.
From the Amazon warriors to numerous spies and guerilla fighters throughout Europe, our history was crafted by women who fought and died in war. Now that women in the U.S. military can serve in combat roles, they’re continuing to change the game for female soldiers — proving to young enlisted women and girls that they can achieve anything they set their mind to.
World War II & the changing role of women
As millions of men were called away to fight in World War II, women’s roles on both the homefront and in the military changed dramatically.
Many housewives and daughters began working industrial labor jobs that were previously restricted to them. This helped the war effort, as women in America built the weapons and supplies needed by soldiers.
More than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry in 1943, totalling 65% of the workforce (it was 1% in previous years).
“Rosie the Riveter” was a campaign run by the U.S. government to encourage women to work in the munitions industry. Rosie was a symbol of strength, and a strong recruitment tool. It became one of the most iconic images of its time.
The military had been opened to women in World War I, though in a very limited capacity. Only 30,000 joined, and female service in the military was still very much a point of contention.
Conversely, around 350,000 women served in the Armed Forces during World War II.
This included Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for these groups after seeing British use of women in service.
“Their contributions in efficiency, skill, spirit, and determination are immeasurable.” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower, referring to five women who served in the Women’s Army Corps on his staff in 1945.
After the war ended, President Harry Truman passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. For the first time, women were fully recognized as members of the U.S. military, and could make a career for themselves in the Army or Navy.
Women’s numbers in the military continued to grow over the decades. Soon, they were granted access to the Marine Corps, Air Force, and the service academies.
In the Gulf War, female pilots were finally authorized to fly combat missions. They also served on combat ships and flew warplanes from aircraft carriers.
The debate for opening more combat positions to female service members began in 1994. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, amid a firestorm of controversy, refused to allow women into any form of ground combat.
In January 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat.
American women have been forced into combat roles as far back as the Revolutionary War — but never had the choice of intentionally filling them.
“They’re fighting and they’re dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality,” Panetta said.
“We are making our military stronger, and we are making America stronger.”
Since 2013, women have successfully undergone and completed infantry training for both the Army and Marine Corps. There have more than two dozen graduates of Army Ranger School, and an anonymous woman who passed the RASP II selection course for the 75th Ranger Regiment. Women are even entering Navy SEAL officer training courses.
In 2015, the Pentagon opened all combat jobs to women.
Though many women have graduated from combat-oriented courses, not as many have been placed in units of their choosing. The first two women to complete Ranger School, for example, had their careers put on hold as the Army tried to decide what to do with them (though both are now commanding officers of infantry units). As with most major changes in the military, implementation takes time.
The fact remains that there are many people who still believe women shouldn’t be serving in combat. Why?
Arguments against women in combat
The road to gender integration in the military has been long and hard-fought. This includes the more recent effort to allow women into combat roles, which has received a lot of backlash.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford — the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the Armed Forces, as well as the principal military advisor to the President — has staunchly opposed this policy change.
Dunford spoke on behalf of the Marine Corps in his opposition, citing 2014-2015 experiments done to test female capability in the field.
The study found that women:
Were twice as likely to sustain serious injuries
- Had lower shooting accuracy than men in combat simulations
- Performed lower in tasks like negotiating obstacles, carrying wounded troops
- Were 11-38% slower than men on loaded marches
The Corps argued that women should still be able to serve in certain combat roles, but not on the frontlines in infantry or artillery positions.
Besides concerns over physical performance, the military has a history of separating units and tasks by gender; they would have to navigate new challenges within mixed-gender operations.
These challenges could include:
- Romantic or sexual relationships between members of the same unit
- Threat of pregnancy in a combat zone
- Higher risk of sexual assault when captured
- Lower male performance due to concern for female soldiers
However, the biggest weakness of mixed-gender units might just be due to the men.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have banned women from close combat operations since 1948. This ban was directly due to how male infantrymen behaved after a woman was wounded.
The IDF cited complete loss of control over male soldiers, who experienced “an instinctual protective aggression that was uncontrollable,” when they witnessed a female soldier being injured.
Despite this, women have served in IDF combat units since around 2000. There’s even a mixed-gender infantry battalion called the Caracal Battalion.
The need for equality
There is also strong evidence that supports female effectiveness in combat.
- Harvard and MIT report a rise in group intelligence when women are on teams
- Social sensitivity and emotional intelligence are needed skills in military operations
- Female soldiers have much more success gaining valuable intelligence from children and women
- Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan built better community relationships
Proponents of women’s integration argue that as long as they meet the same qualifying standards that men do, women should be allowed to serve in combat positions.
Seven years after the combat ban was lifted, women are seeing major advancements in almost every field. It’s not just that they’re completing training courses; it’s not just that they’re filling infantry roles. They’re leading military combat units, and damn proud of it.
Just in the last month, two female corporals in the Marine Corps have become the first to command big-gun Howitzer crews. A captain in the Air Force is the first woman to lead an F-35 Demo Team. And an unidentified Army National Guard soldier is on track to qualify as the first female Green Beret.
The Army is actually ahead of schedule with gender integration in combat roles, reported the Army Times, which may be due in part to how many women are meeting and exceeding standards that were previously considered impossible. More than 1,200 women are currently serving in armory, infantry, and field artillery roles in the nation’s oldest branch of service.
The U.S. military’s policy change was born from a need for equality. As more and more women wanted to serve their country with pride and distinction, there was a similarly higher demand for respect. The same respect that’s awarded to their male counterparts.
For every new infantrywoman, Howitzer crewwoman, female commander, and even Green Beret, it’s another step forward for women in the military. Each step well-deserved.