Historically, American women have served the military primarily as nurses, medics, and other non-combat support roles. While women have worked in combat zones in every war since the Revolutionary War, they have not been enlisted as combat troops. The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is suing the Department of Defense in order to end the policy of sex discrimination of combat troops.
If the courts ruled in the ACLU's favor, this would represent perhaps the largest shift ever of women's military roles in the United States. While asking for women to be represented in combat roles even a decade ago might have been viewed as a major issue, several key factors have changed since that time.
One of those factors is that today's Supreme Court has three women, not just two, and those women have been highly influential in court decisions. Another is the end of the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, which some felt reflected an increasing willingness for the military to liberalize its attitudes about both gender and sexuality.
Historically, intermediate scrutiny has been applied to claims of gender discrimination. This means that if there is an important governmental interest in having the discriminatory law, it can still be applied constitutionally (for example, sex-segregated bathrooms are generally assumed to be important from a public safety perspective). The U.S. government has so far kept women out of combat roles by saying that morale would be affected by women's presence as combat troops.
However, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how the military handles women in combat zones, according to the ACLU's lawsuit. Today, women who are classified as non-combat troops are still likely to fight in combat zones, and many are wounded or killed while engaging in combat.
The real effect of the men-only combat policy, according to the plaintiffs, is to exclude women from receiving higher pay for combat duty and assignments that could lead to faster promotions. Many women in the military today, according to the suit, would be able to advance more quickly in their military career and achieve more if they were allowed to take assignments that included combat roles.
Several of the women currently suing through the ACLU are Purple Heart recipients, meaning that they have been injured in a military conflict. According to these women, the prohibition on female combat troops is outdated and keeps women from excelling in the military, while keeping commanding officers from being able to use the best troops for the job without regard to gender.
Although it may take some time to wind through the court system, this lawsuit could prompt President Obama to request a change in the Pentagon's policies. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense stopped prohibiting women from being assigned to roles that would require them to live with men.
The Department of Defense has so far declined to comment on the case, and says that it reserves the right to open more jobs to women in the military.
Sources: aclu.org, uscourts.gov, usnews.com