Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta's decision to rescind restrictions on women in combat is being compared to President Harry Truman's order to end racial segregation in the armed services (which took years to implement) and Congress' vote in 2010 to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allowed for the expulsion of openly gay service members. But in some ways Panetta's decision is even more significant than those earlier actions.
Although regulations excluding women from ground combat units date back only to 1994, the practice long predates those rules and reflects notions about differences between the sexes that until recently were almost universally held across a variety of cultures. Panetta's decision would have been inconceivable had it not been for the larger emancipation women have achieved in the civilian workplace, in access to education and in their personal lives.
It also reflects changes that already have occurred in the military. Politicians routinely refer to the "brave men and women in our armed forces," and for good reason. As Panetta pointed out in announcing the new policy, women now account for 15% of service members. During the last decade, 61 female service members were killed in action in Iraq and 23 were killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. To a great extent, the idea that women have not been involved in combat operations has been a legal fiction. At the same time, the fact that women have been "attached to" or "co-located with" combat units rather than officially assigned to them has made it harder to achieve promotions.
The new policy has its critics. Some worry that the Pentagon is purporting to repeal biology by ignoring the fact that, in general, men are physically stronger than women. But Panetta indicated that there will be no weakening of physical requirements for strenuous assignments. It may be that some "gender-neutral" physical qualifications will disproportionately exclude women; that is no reason to discriminate against those who can meet the standard.
Other arguments against women in combat are rooted in psychology, such as the notion that the presence of women would undermine "unit cohesion" (the same argument was made about openly gay soldiers) or former Sen. Rick Santorum's suggestion that chivalrous male comrades would neglect their mission because of "the natural instinct to protect someone that's a female."
The best refutation of those arguments is the experience of men and women who have served together in Iraq and Afghanistan, a band of brothers and sisters that made Panetta's action both possible and necessary.