From Suffragette to Soldier: Women in Combat


In January of 2013, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta signed a historical dotted line, lifting the 1994 ban on women serving in combat positions in the United States military. The lift on the ban was met with confusion and celebration, concern and cheers. The ban, officially called the ground Combat Exclusion Policy, declared “service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground” [1]. Today, 214,098 women serve in the U.S. military, representing 14.6 % of total service members [2].

The justifications for the ban were not made explicit at the time it was put into effect; then again, no explanation was really necessary. In 1994, it was widely accepted that there were “practical barriers” to a woman being an adequate soldier, namely physical constraints, emotional frailty, and tensions between the sexes [3]. In 1991, General Robert H. Barrow, former commandant of the Marine Corps, testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee, saying, “If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, assign some women to it” [4]. These prevalent attitudes make it unsurprising that the 1994 ban was put into effect without much debate.

Now that the ban is being lifted, some of these same attitudes are being cited by critics and concerned citizens alike. But truly evaluating these apprehensions shows that not only is lifting the ban plausible and overdue, but also one of the strongest triumphs for women’s rights in decades.

The “Weaker” Sex

One of the most common concerns of those who oppose lifting the ban is the “biological differences” between men and women. Not only do the critics claim that women are emotionally less suited for battle than men, but that they cannot handle the physical exhaustion of active combat [4]. This is not only biologically inaccurate, but historically unproven.

The physical fitness argument operates under the assumption that every individual in a combat unit must have the same exact level of physical fitness—a standard that is not only utterly unnecessary, but completely impossible. Just as not all men are equally fit, all women are not equally unfit. On the contrary, “there are physically fit, tough women who are suitable for combat, and weak, feeble men who are not” [2]. Furthermore, the physical standards of the military were not, claims U.S. Army colonel Matthew Brown, a standard created to measure job effectiveness—just relative physical fitness [5]. Although it is pure biological fact that women and men’s bodies are different, different does not imply an inferior and superior. Women do have less muscle mass and upper body strength than men on average, but they also have a higher pain tolerance and the ability to outrun men in extremely long stretches (100+ miles) [5]. Women are also better able to cope with humid, hot conditions because of their smaller size [5]. In short, evidence suggests that women can offer advantages in battle that men cannot.


Historically, many countries other than the U.S. have found distinct advantages to having women in combat. In World War II, thousands of women were recruited as snipers for the Soviet Red Army, as women generally out-performed men in marksmanship [6]. When, during the Cuban revolution, women soldiers were handed rifles before men, Fidel Castro famously responded to complaints by commenting, “They are better soldiers than you are [6].” The U.S. during the Vietnam War was brutally defeated by an insurgent force largely made up of women on the front lines of combat [6]. Dozens of nations, including Canada and Denmark, lifted their bans on women in combat after extensive testing showed that women were not only as physically able as their male counterparts, but in fact offered many advantages that men did not (4). As one sarcastic female soldier comments: “You don’t need to bench 300 pounds to pull a trigger” [5].

 As for the complaint that women are simply a gentler, less brutal sex than men and therefore unfit to serve in the horrors of the battlefield—there is simply no real evidence for this. In fact, women go through identical training to men, including the mental conditioning of boot camp. Although there are possible repercussions to battle, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, men are equally as susceptible to these as women in war [7], and no gender is immune to the horrors of battle.

Tensions Between Men and Women

One criticism about integrated combat units cites sexual tension as a problem. This problem is not based on any sort of reality, as women and men work together in many high-tension occupations—police officers, astronauts, and pilots, for example—without sexual tension. Jane Blair, a woman who experienced battle in Afghanistan and Iraq first-hand, comments, “In the military, I was treated as a Marine first, and a woman second” [5]. For 10 years, the U.S. military has fought with units that are often gender-integrated, and they have performed incredibly well. The Defense Department’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has found that gender integration has no effect on overall noncombat unit cohesion, and there is no reason to believe that this would change for units predominately involved in combat [8]. As for sexual abuse, while it is a horrific part of the military experience for many women, some suggest that increasing the regularity of women in the military will decrease this problem, not increase it [6].

Finally, on the idea of chivalry: many people believe that male troops will become distracted from missions in order to protect their female counterparts. However, experts say that the image of women fighting courageously side-by-side men decreases the instinct to protect them—a woman with an M16 over her shoulder is surprisingly effective at combatting this damsel-in-distress stereotype (2). Furthermore, the idea that it would somehow be a disservice to the military to risk one’s life to save a comrade is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the military teaches—in fact, an unofficial motto of the Marines is “until they are home, no man left behind” [9]. Since Vietnam, ten Americans have won the Medal of Honor—nine out of these ten received it for saving the lives of comrades on the battlefield [5]. The courage to save a fellow soldier’s life is one of the things soldiers are trained to do and is considered noble, honorable, and a great testament to the strength of the United States military.


The essential truth of the matter is that there is no evidence to suggest that women are any less prepared for the consequences of battle than men. In fact, the true problem with the ban on women in combat units isn’t an idea of an abstract gender inequality, but frankly, the safety of the women in the military. Despite the ban, the past few years has seen hundreds of women receive a Combat Action badge for actively engaging with a hostile enemy [3]. When faced with combat, many women found themselves without armor and without proper guns—but not without proper skills. One hundred forty-four women have died and 600 have been injured in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 280,000 women served as soldiers [2]. Two women were awarded Silver Stars for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq [6]. Lifting this ban not only rights an inequality between men and women, but ensures the most protection possible for the men and women serving in the military—making it a sleeker, more effective fighting force.

Regardless, the willingness of women to stand by men in the front lines of combat marks a turn in the traditional fight for feminism, as society can now see that women are willing to take up equal responsibilities as well as equal rights. But it was not just women who took a giant leap forward with the lift of the combat ban—the nation did as well. Our country is about to be protected by a stronger, more diverse, more equal force.  As a citizen who owes her freedom to the military, I couldn’t be happier.


1. Paula Broadwell, “Women at War’” New York Times, October 20, 2009, accessed January 20, 2013,
2. Megan H. MacKenzie, “Let Women Fight,” Foreign Affairs (2012), accessed January 20, 2013,
3. David F. Burrelli, “Women in Combat: Issues for Congress.” Report Presented by Congressional Research Service Specialist in Military Manpower Policy on December 13. 2012.
4. Matt Barber, “Women in Combat: Notably Moronic,” WND, February 15, 2013, accessed February 20, 2013,
5. Major Jane Blair, “Five myths about women in combat,” The Washington Post Opinions, May 27, 2011, accessed February 15, 2013,
6. “Sexism, war and women in combat,” last modified January 29, 2013,
7. PTSD Frequently Asked Questions, last updated January 2013,
8. Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services History and Accomplishments, last updated January, 2013,
9. Rifleman’s Creed, last updated January 2013,

Melissa Pavlik is a first year at the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science and minoring in Statistics and Spanish. Her primary political, academic, and career interests concern the promotion of equal rights, particularly across social gender constructions. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.