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.

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it's impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they're in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011. Allowing women to get the benefits of serving in combat positions won't make that threat worse. In fact, it might make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women's issues.

The military's idea of what constitutes a combat position is more about bureaucracy than bullets. Today women are on armed patrols and in fighter planes. But they can't hold approximately 2,00,000 jobs officially termed "combat", which often bring more pay and can provide a stepping stone for promotions. The system is complicated. But cynics might wonder if some of the military brass fear women's upward mobility more than the danger.

"We only have one four-star general who's a woman", said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who cheered the recommendation from the joint chiefs. It was, she said, "a great step forward for our military", and one that wasn't really expected. Only recently, she and her allies declared victory when they merely got language in the defence authorisation bill requiring the defence department to study the question of women in combat.

Women now make up almost 15 per cent of the American military and their willingness to serve made the switch to an all-volunteer Army possible. They've taken their posts with such seamless calm that the country barely noticed. The spectre that opponents of the E.R.A. deemed unthinkable our sisters and daughters dying under fire in foreign lands has happened over and over and over. More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives includes a female double-amputee in the person of the newly elected Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former military pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

We've come a long, sometimes tragic, heroic way.

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