Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced today that all military combat jobs will be opened up to women beginning next year, adding that “there will be no exceptions.”
“Our force of the future must continue to benefit from the best people America has to offer,” Carter said at a press conference. “In the 21st century, that requires drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent … We can’t succeed to defend the nation by eliminating half of the U.S. population from combat roles.”
The groundbreaking announcement overturns a 1994 Department of Defense directive that banned women from units that primarily engage in direct combat.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the ban on women in combat in January 2013, mandating that women be fully integrated into all combat jobs by 2016—unless an exemption was requested by a military branch. In order to receive an exemption, the branch would have to use hard data to explain why a woman would not meet the requirements of a specific post.
The Marine Corps was the only military branch to express an objection to the new directive, requesting exemptions to the rule for certain jobs, such as machine gunner. But Carter denied the request, saying there would be no exemptions. When asked about a study by the Marines that appeared to show that all-male units are more capable than mixed units, Carter said the data presented was “not definitive and not determinative.”
Women’s groups have celebrated the decision, which opens up new career opportunities and helps to break down deeply entrenched beliefs that men are more physically powerful than women.
“This is extremely important not only for women in the military, but for all women,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Women have been in combat for years, but the false premise that they were not in combat was used to discriminate against women in the military for promotions to leadership positions. Meanwhile, it was also being used against all women as an excuse to restrict full rights and vote against the Equal Rights Amendment.”
The Pentagon’s announcement comes only a few months after three women made history by graduating from the elite Amy Ranger School.
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