On January 24, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially cleared female soldiers for ground combat, overturning a longstanding ban. Panetta has spent the last year consulting with top military officials, and his decision comes after years of debate about whether or not women are fit for combat.
Though women weren’t officially approved to engage in combat before, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seriously blurred battlefield lines. There are no “front lines” in an insurgency, so women serving in these wars haven’t been kept entirely out of combat. Many women serving as pilots, mechanics, supply clerks and in other positions have been put in danger and exchanged fire with enemies. Now, women will be able to formally qualify for combat units, by meeting the same physical skill standards that male soldiers are held to.
An official reversal of the ban is a huge step for women in the military. While many critics have been quick to point out that not all women will want to serve in these dangerous roles, the women who do will now have the chance. And more combat opportunities could also lead to career advancement for some female soldiers – combat tours have long been a factor in promotions, and women who have served in battle could make better candidates for high-level positions.
As Jessica Valenti points out over at The Nation, this decision is an important one for all women, not just members of the military. Common arguments against women in combat include that they’re too emotional, too weak, and, oh, they can’t poop in front of their fellow soldiers. Allowing women the opportunity for equal military placement will help break down outdated ideas of what women “should” be, and the powerful sexism that still plagues our country.
The United States isn’t the first to make this stride. Several other countries already allow women to serve in battle, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand and Norway. And while women may not have always been on the front lines in modern warfare, there’s a long history of women and combat. Click through the gallery for a brief history of the fighting women throughout the world.
Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.