In an announcement last Thursday, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that the Pentagon will lift its official ban on women in combat that has been in place since 1994. According to the Department of Defense, this means that the approximately 237,000 positions which women were previously barred from holding will be going under review. As a result, many of them will become available to women by 2016. It is important to note that this is not true for all positions.
The Pentagon’s decision is a stride in the right direction, even if it falls short of implementing completely gender-neutral standards. Beyond the step towards parity, the largest gain for servicewomen lies in the professional mobility these newly available positions will provide them. Given that combat tours carry significant weight in career advancement decisions, women’s eligibility to partake in these assignments will hopefully lead to a marked increase in female leadership and gradual promotion through the military’s ranks.
Women’s ability to engage in combat is monumental in the movement toward equality, accompanying President Barack Obama’s landmark repeal of the military’s anti-LGBT “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Nevertheless, we should not let this seemingly progressive achievement blind us from seeing that this move only continues to glorify a deeply entrenched culture in which nationalism, militarism, and violence are placed on a pedestal.
Furthermore, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the American military still has the responsibility to protect the women within its ranks. Arguably, this is true now more than ever—putting women in higher-pressure situations may exacerbate the recent spike in sexual assault within the military. Because of this so-called epidemic, as many as one in three servicewomen has been sexually assaulted according to the DoD statistics. This is compared to an already sky-high one in six rate for civilian women.
Military victims do not have a confidential and effective authority to notify about these crimes, fearing retribution and even removal from service. The prevalence of victim-blaming attitudes within a very male-dominated military only serves to worsen the situation for survivors, who are led to keep knowledge of the assaults to themselves. Consequently, the Pentagon estimates that only 14 percent of assaults are reported. This horrifyingly low number undoubtedly implicates the U.S. military in its failure to properly protect its servicewomen from the violent and patriarchal culture it embodies.
There are still a multitude of issues facing women in the military—and American women generally—that should not be swept under the rug or overshadowed by a move towards gender parity. Equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work are only the tip of the iceberg—a whole culture must be overturned and reformed before the disparities even come close to being eliminated.