from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Another Barrier Falls: United States Joins Group of Countries That Open Doors to Women in Combat

December 17, 2015

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This past month, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced the end of the military’s combat ban for women, marking the end of the longstanding prohibition. Women will now “be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat[,]” Carter explained. The Pentagon chief confirmed that he was not making any exceptions, and that women will “be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.” Each service of the military has until April 2016 to fully integrate women into combat roles.

In preparation of lifting the ban, U.S. defense officials studied the militaries of other countries that have experience with sending women into combat, to determine how the military could fully integrate women into all American combat positions. With the ban lifted, the United States joins more than a dozen countries that already allow women to fight in combat and place fewer restrictions on women’s role in the military.

Norway was the first NATO country to allow women into all combat positions, including submarines. In fact, earlier this year, the country’s government enacted a law that extends conscription to women. As Colonel Ingrid Gjerde, the commander of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan in 2012, notes, "It’s not a big deal because women who go into these fields know the standards, and it’s not that hard for women to train up to the standards if they really want."

Israel is also well-known for permitting women in combat positions. It has a longstanding practice of conscription for both women and men. However, while many combat roles have been open to women, in practice, as of 2013, only 4.3 percent of combat troops were women. Certain combat positions are still off-limits to women, including serving in tanks and submarines. Moreover, overall, as of 2011, the Israeli Defense Forces is only 33 percent female, in part because the length of time women are required to serve is shorter, and there is a more lenient discharge system for Jewish women who are religiously observant.

Now that women are allowed to join combat units, will they? Canada eliminated restrictions on women in combat in 1989, but, as of 2014, women only comprised 2.4 percent of combat troops.

Women in the U.S. military have been, as a practical matter, in combat roles since September 11, 2001. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the traditional front lines of war faded and women were in combat roles despite the official ban. As CFR’s Gayle Tzemach Lemmon notes, for many women, the end of the ban just means that they can be officially recognized for the work they have already been doing.

But as Radhika Coomaraswamy suggested at a recent CFR roundtable I hosted, increasing the number of women in various military roles around the world should not simply be a way to expand the capacity of countries to fight war. Indeed, increasing the number of women in combat is intrinsically important as a matter of equality and can enhance the ability of militaries to respond to civilians (particularly the concerns of female civilians). Plus, some militaries have found that women soldiers are more effective at tasks, such as gathering intelligence from female civilians, which can help prevent attacks before they occur. At the same time, women have proven they can be as tough in fighting wars as men—and meet the standards defined by men. Historically, armed conflict involves a form of hyper masculinity and such masculinities continue to function in subsequent peace-building efforts. As women step into combat—and more broadly into positions of power—will this change the nature of peace and security or will access to these positions change women?

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