“You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe”: American Women in Combat

by Heather Marie Stur


U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class Alyssa Wells, Supervisor Guard, 186th Military Police Company, watches from the roof as women come out to the courtyard in the Rusafa Prison Complex, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced that the armed services would open all combat positions to women in anticipation of President Obama’s January 2016 deadline for doing so. What this means, Carter told reporters at a press conference, is that servicewomen will “be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll 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.”[i] Pentagon officials have stated that the armed forces will not modify their standards or set quotas for women. Those in favor of allowing women to officially serve in combat hail the decision as a crucial step toward the full integration of women into the military and the removal of a barrier to career advancement. Opponents cite studies indicating women’s physical limitations and argue that women in combat will weaken unit cohesion. Some feminists argue that integrating women into the military fails to challenge a war making system grounded in patriarchal ideas about power and domination. Buttressing the various opinions in the debate are cultural beliefs about gender, citizenship, and security.

The history of women in the U.S. military is one of gradual integration and fairly consistent cultural resistance. Women began serving officially in the armed forces when the Army and Navy established nurse corps in the early 1900s. Long considered “women’s work,” nursing was an acceptable field in which women could serve, but when American women joined civilian rifle clubs and civil defense groups during World War I, this subversion of traditional ideas about men as protectors and women in need of protection shocked the American public. The idea of armed women defending the nation ran counter to the prevailing gendered divisions between home front and battlefront.[ii] During World War II, manpower needs led the Army to establish the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which opened clerical, intelligence, communications, and other non-combat specialties to women. Critics decried this type of mobilization of women, arguing that women did not belong in harm’s way and that the WAC would be a haven for lesbians and “loose women.”[iii]

When the Defense Department abolished the draft at the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces launched recruitment campaigns targeting women in order to help fill the ranks of an all-volunteer force. The U.S. military academies began admitting women in 1976, and the Army dissolved the WAC in 1978 and integrated servicewomen into the regular army.[iv] At that time, Family: The Magazine of Army/Navy/Air Force Times published an article about the post-Vietnam expansion of women’s service opportunities titled “You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe,” a play on the old Virginia Slims slogan. It discussed the new military opportunities for women and the negative reactions to them by some citizens and servicemen. Expressing opposition in terms similar to those used by critics of the WAC in the 1940s, opponents viewed servicewomen as either “hopeless nymphomaniacs” or “a hopeless loser or lesbian.”[v] Despite the resistance, 62 women cadets graduated from West Point in 1980. In the early 1990s, more than 40,000 American women served in the Gulf War, and Congress authorized servicewomen to fly combat missions and serve on combat ships. About 300,000 American women have served in the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August, the first two women graduated from the Army’s elite Ranger School.[vi]

This history suggests that the opening of all combat specialties to women would be the next step in a century’s worth of progress toward gender equality in the U.S. military. But neither the Pentagon nor the president can force a change in Americans’ beliefs about who can and should fight. At the heart of some critics’ resistance to women in combat is conscription. Opponents worry that if the U.S. reinstates the draft, women would have to be subject to it because they can now serve in combat. The primary purpose of a draft is to fill infantry positions vacated by killed or wounded soldiers. Women, along with men, could be compelled to take up arms and fight. Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it this way: “If you’re going to have women in infantry units, if a draft ever occurred, America needs to realize that its daughters and sisters would be included. The reason you draft people is because you have infantrymen dying.”[vii] Daughters and sisters. More than questions about women’s ability to carry sixty-plus pounds while maneuvering a weapon and running, the notion that the federal government could order daughters and sisters to the front lines is, to some critics, the most troubling consequence of opening combat positions to women. This mindset is deeply rooted in the ideas that men are to protect women, especially younger women who are or could be mothers, and that the home front and the battlefront are gendered separate spheres to be controlled by women and men, respectively. If sons and brothers are drafted and subsequently killed in war, it is a tragic but necessary fulfillment of duty to the nation. If the same happens to daughters and sisters, it is a cause for outrage against the gender equality movement for upending the natural order of things.

War has proven that all of these divisions – protector versus protected, home front versus battlefront, motherhood versus military service as ultimate civic duties – are artificial. Resistance to women serving in infantry jobs remains even though servicewomen have already seen direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before those conflicts, in the Vietnam War, women military nurses worked in hospitals that were routinely attacked, and WACs found themselves diving into bunkers with their male comrades to ride out mortar attacks. There were no front lines in Vietnam, or in Iraq or Afghanistan. These dichotomies have been even more artificial for non-American women. My friend and Dale Center fellow, Allison Abra, explained to me that historians of Britain have argued that since the aerial bombings of World War I, opponents of women in combat could not focus as much on shielding women from the violence of war because not even civilian women were protected from harm when the home front was the battlefront. If the goal is the full integration of women into the U.S. military, the next and most difficult step is to let go of these imagined divisions and focus on measurable data when thinking about men’s and women’s appropriate roles in wartime. If a woman can graduate from Ranger School under the same standards that apply to men, why shouldn’t she serve in combat?

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). She is currently writing Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam (Cambridge, forthcoming).

[i] Matthew Rosenberg and Dave Phillips, “All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html?emc=edit_th_20151204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=64532283&_r=3&referer=

[ii] Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[iii] Leisa Meyer, Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[iv] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Beth Bailey, America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010).

[v] Stur, 226.

[vi] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “Women in combat? They’ve already been serving on the front lines, with heroism,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1204-lemmon-women-combat-20151204-story.html

[vii] Austin Wright, “Republicans raise alarm about women in combat. Their subtle warning: It could force all young women to register for the draft,” Politico, Dec. 3, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/pentagon-women-in-combat-republican-reaction-216412

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and senior fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020), The U.S. Military and Civil Rights Since World War II (ABC-CLIO 2019), and Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). She is also co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II (Johns Hopkins 2017). Dr. Stur is the author of numerous articles, which have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, BBC, the National Interest, the Orange County Register, Diplomatic History, and other journals and newspapers. In 2013-14, Dr. Stur was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She is currently writing a book about the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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