US women in combat: Will equality affect national security?

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes the anticipated consequences of policy changes don’t materialize. A case in point: Lifting the ban on U.S. servicewomen fighting – and dying – in combat hasn’t dampened Americans’ support for war.

John Bazemore/AP/File
A female U.S. Army recruit practices tactics for clearing a building with male recruits at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Oct. 4, 2017.

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For over a decade now, many have worried about the impact on public opinion of servicewomen fighting – and dying – on the front lines. Would hearing about women sacrificing their lives in combat make citizens reluctant to support America’s wars?  

A recently released study answers definitively, no. Women dying in combat did not diminish support for America’s wars, despite the number of fatalities. Whether one woman died or a dozen, support for the war remained the same.

The study also considered whether women “fighting on the frontlines and making heroic sacrifices in combat” might have “broad implications for women’s equality.” Among male respondents, the answer was another definitive no.

“We don’t find evidence of a massive shift in thinking about what women are capable of doing, even after serving and sacrificing in these heroic ways,” says Dara Kay Cohen, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School and one of the study’s authors. “On a personal level, that was a depressing finding for us.”

But retired Col. Ellen Haring suspects that will change. “We have a lot more male champions today than when we came into the Army,” she says. “It can just take time.”

After the ban on women in combat was lifted in 2013 (initially subject to exceptions), debate raged about whether the death of female troops in battle, particularly in large numbers, would cause Americans to turn against their country’s wars in a way that men’s deaths don’t – and, in the process, imperil U.S. national security.

Opening combat jobs – without exception – to women in 2015 did little to quell the debate.

Two years later, the impact of women dying in combat was still a point of discussion, including in classrooms at Harvard University, where former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had just returned to teach. “There were people wildly speculating about the consequences of this [women in combat] change,” says Connor Huff, a teaching assistant there at the time, “and doing this with no evidence.” 

He mentioned this to Dara Kay Cohen, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. “Connor said, ‘Instead of just talking about it, let’s collect some data,’” she recalls.

Last month they published the study, and the results were clear: Women dying in combat did not diminish support for America’s wars. 

Early on in the project, their findings were so unequivocal that they decided to ask more questions. What would happen, for example, if women were dying in greater numbers? But whether the hypothetical combat fatality was a man (Todd Ryan) or a woman (Molly Ryan) – and whether one woman died or a dozen – support for the war remained the same. 

The study should “put to bed the argument that women serving and sacrificing in these roles will be harmful to leaders’ ability to wage war,” Dr. Cohen says.

It seems like a point that should have been shelved long ago, particularly given that 173 American servicewomen have died for their country since 2001 without the wars grinding to a halt, notes retired Col. Ellen Haring, a 1984 West Point graduate who, in 2012, sued the Department of Defense for its combat exclusion policy. Still, she adds, “I wish this study would have come out five or 10 years ago.” 

Combat sacrifice but not “first-class citizenship”

In addition to the argument that women should be protected from fighting wars due to their inherent weakness, in the early days of women in combat, the study notes, there was concern among advocates that detractors could interpret the death of female soldiers as confirmation of their unfitness for the front lines, their dying as evidence of poor performance in battle.

That argument never gained much traction, but American women in combat remained a touchy subject. In 2018, for example, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis told an audience at Virginia Military Institute that infantry troops are “necessarily macho” since war is “the most primitive – I would say even evil – environment.” In that context, he added that the “jury is out” on whether women can make the U.S. military more combat-effective.

This was three years after the Pentagon opened all combat jobs to women – including the infantry and special operations forces – and three years after the first women graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School. Today, some 50 women have earned their Ranger tabs, and there are nearly 1,000 women serving as infantry soldiers, tankers, and cavalry scouts, front-line jobs previously closed to them.

As women have moved into these jobs, the hope among advocates has been that respect for them might grow in the eyes of their fellow countrymen, creating a path to, as the study puts it, “first-class citizenship.” Dr. Cohen and Dr. Huff, now an assistant professor of political science at Rice University in Texas, along with their co-author Robert Schub of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, looked into this, too, collecting data on whether, according to the study, women “fighting on the frontlines and making heroic sacrifices in combat” might have “broad implications for women’s equality.”

It doesn’t appear to, at least among men. “We don’t find evidence of a massive shift in thinking about what women are capable of doing, even after serving and sacrificing in these heroic ways,” Dr. Cohen says. “On a personal level, that was a depressing finding for us.”

As the study puts it, “Combat service – and indeed, combat sacrifice – alone appears to be insufficient to yield women ‘first-class citizenship’ among the U.S. public that the most ardent supporters hope to achieve.”

Military women serving in these roles often take pains to emphasize that they are not doing it to garner special kudos, or even to make a statement – other than that they want to fight in the same way their male counterparts do. Still, the finding is “very disappointing,” Colonel Haring says. 

Tae-Gyun Kim/AP/File
Maj. Shanelle Porter, commanding officer at Recruiting Station Chicago, stands outside her office in Des Plaines, Illinois, on Aug. 5, 2016. U.S. Marine Corps recruiters are turning to girls' high school sports teams to find candidates who may be able to meet the Corps’ rigorous physical standards for front-line combat jobs.

Women soldiers as role models for women

Among women, however, the study’s findings were different. Hearing about women serving and dying in combat did seem to boost support for women’s equality among other women. This included, for example, creating more positive views of women’s fitness for leadership.

There appears to be a “kind [of] aspirational effect on women,” Dr. Cohen says, noting that a number of studies have shown that if there’s a female instructor for an introductory economics class, for example, more women tend to declare an economics major, “but it doesn’t have that effect on men,” she adds. “Seeing someone like you do something inspiring or heroic has an effect on similar people.” 

This may have had something to do with the fact that women who served in the military ran for elective office in larger numbers than ever before in both the 2018 and 2020 elections, the study argues: “Having status as a veteran increased public perceptions of the legitimacy and authority of female candidates.”

And though women in combat may not have an immediate impact on how men view women’s equality, it may over time, Colonel Haring says. “Look, 100 years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a woman to command a Navy ship. Now it’s not even blinked at,” she adds. “I also know we have a lot more male champions today than when we came into the Army – it can just take time.” 

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