Except for the military and some religious organizations, few institutions in society have regularly excluded women from top positions because of their gender. In a welcome move, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shortened that list on Thursday, at the urging of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon is lifting a 1994 ban that barred women from serving in combat, including in the infantry, artillery, special operations and other specialties. In anticipation of the change, Panetta opened up 14,000 combat-related jobs to servicewomen nearly a year ago without incident.
Canada, France and Israel are among the countries with women serving in combat. Because of the nature of war today, U.S. female troops were often on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 150 of them paid the ultimate sacrifice and hundreds of others have been wounded.
Women make up more than 14 percent of the military. But the lack of combat experience hindered their ability to move up the ranks and into top military posts. In lifting the ban, the Defense Department is finally moving to end discriminatory practices and is creating the best military force possible, regardless of gender and without compromising physical-fitness standards.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that the lack of women in leadership has contributed to the military's failure to deal with an epidemic of sexual assaults. Panetta estimates that as many as 19,000 of the military's 200,000 servicewomen are assaulted annually by U.S. servicemen, including officers.
Some aspects of the Defense Department's process for change are troubling. In 2010, Congress repealed the ban on openly gay and lesbian individuals from military service, effective immediately. For military women, changes are being phased in over time, and with worrisome strings attached.
For the next three years, military commanders can make a case for continuing to exclude women from some positions. What should be a momentous milestone for servicewomen is tempered by fear that those who'd rather keep the status quo will exploit the loophole.
Appeals will go to the secretary of defense, and unfortunately that won't be Panetta, who is leaving office. President Obama wants to replace him with Chuck Hagel, a former Nebraska senator who repeatedly voted to restrict military women's reproductive rights but who now indicates that he'll support the president's policies.
Last year, several servicewomen, including Purple Heart awardees, filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of overturning the 1994 ban. The suit may have been a catalyst for change already in motion. But the major credit belongs to the dedicated servicewomen whose military skills convinced the Pentagon's top brass to rally for this historic decision.
An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.