Sisters in arms

Women in the military are going to get to serve in combat. They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.

The joint chiefs of staff have bowed to reality and told Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that "the time has come" to stop excluding women from combat positions. The transformation won't happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it's still a groundbreaking change. When the recommendation became public, except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America ("our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness"), the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive.

It's hard to remember so many parts of recent history now seem hard to remember but it was the spectre of women under fire that did more than anything else to quash the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. "We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too", recalled Gloria Steinem.

The fear of putting women in the trenches has been dispelled on two fronts. One, of course, is the change in the way the American public thinks about women. The other is the shortage of trenches in modern warfare, when an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a support worker. Shoshana Johnson, a cook, was shot in both ankles, taken captive and held for 22 days after her unit was separated from a convoy crossing the Iraqi desert. Lori Piestewa, a Native American and, like Johnson, a single mother, was driving in the same convoy full of clerks and maintenance workers. She was skillfully steering her Humvee through mortar fire when a truck immediately ahead of her jackknifed and her front wheel was hit by a rocket. She was fatally injured in the ensuing crash.

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