Women in Combat
A Marine recruit goes through basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. (Flickr/Expert Infantry)

Responding to the news that the Pentagon will lift the ban on women in combat, lawyer and former Marine Ryan Smith made an impassioned argument in The Wall Street Journal for why this new policy is such a bad idea: “It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex.” And here I thought those in combat would have bigger concerns than who will see you go number two.

However silly, Smith’s argument epitomizes why lifting the ban on women in combat is so important—and about so much more than military policy. The arguments against women on the frontlines have always been more about about reinforcing traditional gender norms and holding onto an outdated and sexist model of what a woman should be like, rather than military protocol.

Rick Santorum said women shouldn’t serve on the frontlines because of “emotions.” Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness—an organization that seeks to limit military service of LGBT Americans and women—says that women aren’t physically up to the task (“they don’t have equal opportunity to survive”) and that mothers shouldn’t be allowed to be away from their children on long deployments. Tucker Carlson thinks women on the frontlines is just another form of violence against women. Some even think the fact that a woman can get pregnant is reason enough to ban her from combat.

One of the most common arguments, however, is that the chance of women being raped is just too high. In a 2007 Washington Post piece, Kathleen Parker wrote, “What kind of man, one shudders to wonder, is willing to allow his country’s women to be raped and tortured by men of enemy nations?” Setting aside the disconcerting possessive language, how is it ethical (or logical) to ban women from spaces in which someone else might commit violence against them? Rape on college campuses is at epidemic proportions, yet no one suggests that we ban women from universities. Or perhaps we should create a law that prevents women from marrying men—after all, there’s a chance they might end up with an abusive husband. It’s for their own protection! This particular argument also largely ignores the shockingly high rate of sexual assault within the military. It’s not always the “enemy” women in the military have to be afraid of.

Arguments against women on the frontlines have done little to protect and support actual women—in fact, they’ve been used to actively discriminate against women. When Phyllis Schlafly launched her (sadly, successful) campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, one of her major arguments was that the amendment would force women into combat.

The truth is that women are already dying in service to their country and are already on the frontlines, despite the existing policy.

What lifting the ban on women in combat will really mean is more opportunity for career advancement. The ACLU points out that women will now be eligible for tens of thousands of jobs that were once only available to men.

But perhaps even more importantly, it will start to chip away at the benevolent sexism that clouds our culture and suggests that inequality is just another form of chivalry.

For more on the lies and conceits of American militarism, read Dave Zirin on the NFL’s distortion of MLK.