President Obama has just named Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson the first female commander of a combatant command in U.S. history. This comes on the heels of a broad policy change across our military that now opens all combat roles to qualified women. This new policy raises questions: Should women also be required to enroll in Selective Service? If drafted, should women be required to serve in combat roles?
Central to this debate are the concepts of equality and sacrifice. Yet before making this change, it's worth considering more fully the important role that women's have long played in supporting our country including in times of war.
Traditionally, the vast majority of casualties in battlefields have been male, which means that men have more often made what's known as the ultimate sacrifice. Yet their loss is women's loss too. The greatest sacrifice that women have made throughout history is their husbands, brothers, and sons. It requires great courage to give one's life for his country, but it also requires great courage to go on living through deep loss, as war widows have always done, often shouldering parenting and other family duties on their own.
Even when male family members are not killed or captured, but come home safely from violent conflict, their wives and families have weathered fearful times of long absence that have emotional consequences. Often combat veterans return to their families with serious injuries or with damaged emotional or mental health. Navigating relationships in these cases is difficult for wives as well as husbands.
Many have asked if women have what it takes - in terms of physical strength and bravery - to become combat soldiers. As panelists at a recent Independent Women's Forum event pointed out, allowing women into combat roles runs the risk of eroding military physical fitness standards by making filling gender quotas the priority. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Tony Shaffer said, "A quota system is code word for a path away from standards."
But has anyone stopped to consider how critical women are on the home front, and how greatly they will be missed while away at war, especially if they are mothers?
Of course, not all of women's wartime sacrifices have been family-related: Historically, women contributed tangibly to the World War II effort by working in defense plants (like Rosie the Riveter) and doing other jobs to keep the American economy going.
Women were instrumental in creating the United Service Organizations and other wartime volunteer organizations that supported troops abroad or cared for home front communities. Women have always been eager servants to their communities, in wartime and in peacetime.
Women also served in uniform in WWII, comprising about 350,000 troops in mostly non-combat posts like nursing and clerical jobs. Many women performed roles traditionally considered masculine, such as driving trucks, repairing airplanes, and working as laboratory technicians. They took these behind-the-scenes roles to free up more male troops to go to the front lines of war.
Today, it's not likely that the United States or the world will see another conflict on the scale of WWII. It's also not likely that we will conscript Americans into military service the way we did last in the 1970s during the Vietnam War.
However, the wisdom in our traditional policy that shielded women from the Selective Service rests on the idea that, as complements, women and men have different roles to play in service to our country. While America can be a beacon for gender equality before the law, this does not require us to ignore physical differences between men and women and accept that the sexes are interchangeable in all roles and all facets of life.
In fact, when women and men are compared to one another, often there's a sexist undertone to the comparison that discounts women's choices and behavior.
For example, in the economy, the unpaid work of so many women as homemakers and volunteers is often discounted when we use only wages as a metric of success. Women often earn less money than men, because they prefer professions and jobs that offer more flexibility, but this does not mean women are experiencing less success than men. Often they are making noble choices and finding self-fulfillment and success as they define it. Conversely, many men only earn as much as they do because they have a supportive wife or partner playing a complementary role in their shared household. And supportive spouses also share in the rewards.
Men and women don't need to be the same to be equal. We can accept that men and women are inherently different and still appreciate how the two sexes make distinct but complementary sacrifices to make our economy, our society, our families, and our military strong.
Hadley Heath Manning is a senior policy analyst with the Independent Women's Forum.