By Rachel Brody |
In announcing the repeal of the military's official ban on women in combat, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has dismantled one of the last and strongest bastions of gender-based discrimination in the American workplace. From a civil rights perspective, the decision to open up infantry positions to all qualified candidates simply conforms to a well-established prohibition against basing access to employment on categorical traits rather than individual ability. For almost half a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has presumed gender classifications to be invalid in the absence of "exceedingly persuasive" justification to the contrary, whether in the arena of employment, education, or property rights.
Where the assignment of women to combat positions is concerned, no such justification can be said to exist. Arguments regarding the capacity of women to perform such roles fall flat in the face of their demonstrated ability to serve in combat, albeit without being recognized formally for their contributions. When Major Mary Hegar successfully completed a rescue mission under fire in Afghanistan, or Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt accompanied combat soldiers on "door-kicking missions" in search of insurgents, or Captain Zoe Bedell trained and deployed female Marines to serve in direct support of infantry battalions, they undertook the same risks and accomplished the same feats as the men beside whom they served.
Contrary to serving a legitimate interest, moreover, the combat exclusion rule ultimately compromised military readiness and hampered the Pentagon from recruiting and assigning the best-qualified individuals to positions encompassing the core mission of the Armed Forces. Instead of strengthening our defense capabilities, the policy disrupted critical operations by forcing troops to reconcile theoretical restrictions with practical fighting conditions. The policy of attaching, rather than formally assigning, Female Engagement Teams to infantry units, for example, required the teams regularly to leave their combat outposts and return to main operating bases, endangering both the women and their larger mission.
Finally, at a moment when sexual violence continues to contaminate the Armed Forces, lifting the ban on women in combat challenges the conventional wisdom that civil rights are a luxury that the military cannot afford. By legitimizing the professional contributions of service women, this development elevates their status within the institution and announces that they no longer constitute second class citizens. Like the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the abolition of this discriminatory policy sends a message that military personnel need not sign away their rights to equal treatment when they agree to serve their country.
About Rachel Natelson Legal Director of the Service Women's Action Network
Ariela Migdal Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project
Loretta Sanchez Democratic Representative from California
Michael O'Hanlon Director of Research for Brookings's 21st Century Defense Initiative