Women in Combat: The Lessons of Progress

Posted on February 14th, 2013 by Lauren Gutterman

From Center for Gender and Sexuality Law Visiting Scholar Nathaniel Frank, originally published on The Huffington Post on January 24th:

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Pentagon announced this week that it would lift its ban on women in combat. Just like that. No years-long Washington lobbying campaign, no protracted national culture-war debate, no threats by conservatives in Congress to do everything humanly possible to block progress — in other words, nothing like the decades-long fight the nation saw over letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the military.

The differences between the two political battles are stark, yet the substance of the two debates has great overlap. In both cases, advocates of equality pointed out that merit and ability to do the job should be more important than the cultural beliefs of one segment of society, and they showed that there was no research indicating that equal treatment harmed the military. Opponents of both open gays and women in combat cited concerns about military effectiveness, suggesting — but never proving — that reform carried great risk to the military and thus to national security.

Yet in both cases, just below these surface arguments lay the cultural and moral concerns that turned out to be the real source of resistance to change. Charlie Moskos, the late sociologist who coined the term “don’t ask, don’t tell” and championed the policy, justified the ban, in part, by pointing to gender segregation in the military. “If you had open gays,” he once said, “you’d probably have the same harassment problems as you do among men and women.” Moskos publicly rooted his opposition in the threat to unit cohesion that open service by gays allegedly posed, but more quietly he spoke of high-minded but meaningless phrases like “natural law” and the “moral right” that straight people have not to encounter gay people. “I’m just against that,” he said of letting gays serve openly, as he tied his personal rule to gender separation. “I should not be forced to shower with a woman; I shouldn’t be forced to shower with an open gay.” Ultimately he acknowledged, “It’s a cultural issue in this country that women shouldn’t be compelled to go into combat, shouldn’t kill people.”

In the early 1990s Congress repealed a ban on women in combat planes, against the opposition of some in the military. General Merrill McPeak, then a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later an adviser to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, opposed women in combat and open service by gays. But he acknowledged that his views on both were rooted in cultural rather than military concerns. He told Congress he had “personal prejudices” against women in combat and opposed it “even though logic tells us” such opposition is groundless. He even admitted that he would choose an inferior man over a qualified woman even if it made for a “militarily less effective situation,” saying, “I admit it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I feel about it.” Later, during Obama’s campaign, McPeak caused a stir by opposing the candidate’s position on ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Nevertheless, McPeak once again made it clear that his opposition was personal and had nothing to do with military effectiveness. To lift the ban, he explained in 2008, “the service leadership will have to go to the gay and lesbian annual ball and lead the first dance,” and he did not believe leaders would — or should — rise to the occasion.

The same dynamic is at work today. On a battlefield that makes few distinctions between combat and non-combat roles, the reality is that women have been on the front lines for years. Some 800 have been wounded and 130 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet many conservatives are loath to endorse or even admit this reality because, like Moskos and McPeak, they still want to believe that women are the “fairer” sex. A representative of the conservative Christian Family Research Council called the decision “another social experiment,” despite the fact that the change is an effort to catch up with reality rather than to try anything new. He called it a “distraction” that placed “unnecessary burdens” on military leadership. “Living conditions are primal in many situations with no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions,” he said, using precisely the same talking points that people used for years to oppose gays in the military. (It’s not clear what he meant by the loaded term “normal functions,” but the reality on the battlefield is that men and women often have no more than a sheet to hold up when bathing or changing in sight of one another.)

In my research on gays in the military, I repeatedly heard that the question of women in the military was far thornier on the ground than open service by gays. After all, gay people were already serving; they just were not permitted to come out. And women, who make up a far larger and more visible portion of the armed forces, have endured epidemic levels of sexual harassment over the decades, in part because both grunts and senior leadership resisted or resented their presence in their midst.

And yet, politically, the gay issue proved far messier and more intractable than the question of integrating women into combat. One reason for this is that recent progress on gay rights, and the November election, which endorsed a progressive view of women’s equality, made it impossible for the right wing to oppose this step.

That’s not to say that this week’s news came easily or on its own. Advocates for military gender equality have had to fight for this day for many years. Part of the reason that this week’s announcement may seem to have come easily is because of the long-term efforts of advocates who refused to accept the groundless rationalizations of folks like Moskos and McPeak, not to mention the theatrics of groups like the Family Research Council and the Center for Military Readiness, who claimed that equal treatment threatened our national security or our way of life.

But this day also came with the help of lessons from the history of earlier battles. In 1993, when President Clinton sought to end the military’s gay ban outright, a Congress led by his own Democratic Party revolted and ended up writing into statute a new version of the gay ban (“don’t ask, don’t tell”), making it far harder to reverse. One of the lessons of that failure was the importance of building up a strong base of factual and public support for reform before moving ahead with advocacy. Another was how to smartly use what I call “research advocacy” along with court challenges and public opinion campaigns, all in conjunction with the political process, to win the right results at the right time. (A forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality offers a first-pass history of the effort to end the military’s gay ban, with essays by me and many other scholars and participants in that effort.)

This week’s announcement lifting the ban on female combat came as the ACLU, together with the Service Women’s Action Network, were moving forward with a legal challenge to the ban. Likewise, momentum for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” surged when a legal challenge by the Log Cabin Republicans triumphed, threatening the Pentagon with the loss of control of its own policy.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) reacted to the end of the ban on female combat by saying that “it reflects the reality of the 21st century military operations.” It also reflects the reality of a 21st-century culture, ushered in in no small part by advocates who fought against retrograde defenders of the status quo. How much has changed in such a short time. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who, just two years ago, became irrational and obsessive in his opposition to open service by gays, supports this arguably far larger cultural change in the military: “The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces,” he said. “Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude.”

The identical words applied to gays and lesbians, though McCain stubbornly refused to say them then. They also apply to transgender military members, who are still needlessly barred from service. Indeed on the heals of this positive Pentagon announcement, we must remember that there is more work to do, including trans inclusion, full partner benefits, fighting military rape and sexual harassment and reforming the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which still makes sodomy and adultery a jailable offence.

The lessons of past battles is twofold: First, advocates for progress must continue to master the tools for pushing both public opinion and politics forward, and this takes the careful and patient effort of building a fact-based movement for change. Secondly, opponents of change — those who resist progress out of fear or greed for their own power — will forever use fake facts to claim that moving forward threatens the republic. Yet awareness of the truth of history shows that it doesn’t.

As we resolve to keep working, with those lessons in mind, we should also pause to savor the progress we’ve made in building a social movement for equality and fairness, and with a shout-out to a president without whom far less of this would have happened by now.


  1. The problem is the military doesn’t follow federal laws or their own UCMJ. The problem of rape and sexual assault is epic and the announcement of women in combat was to distract us from this issue. It pits women against women because if women come forward about rape it makes them look weak, so other women will not want them to report their assaults. There is nothing good about any of this.


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