Why Can't Women Serve at the Front?

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Hundreds of thousands of military positions remain closed to females. What's holding them back?

This week, four female members of the military filed a lawsuit challenging the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat. The women say that because they cannot serve in battle, they are unable to acquire the necessary accolades that allow them to be promoted into as many as 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces.

Back in February, the Defense Department announced new policies that eased restrictions on jobs women could do in the military, opening up more than 14,000 positions to women and allowing them closer than ever to the front lines.

But embedded in that news was a long list of positions that were still closed to women, including infantry branch officers and members of special operation missions. That has caused some people to wonder: What's holding the government back from offering true equality to women in the armed forces?

The official reason for sustained gender roles is that "there are practical barriers," said DOD spokeswoman Eillen Lainez, "which if not approached in a deliberate manner, could adversely impact the health of our service members and degrade mission accomplishment."

History, too, may play a role, say researchers who cite conservative views that date back to the Revolutionary War. Traditional attitudes make many people both uncomfortable with the idea of women fighting and unable to handle the image of mothers coming home in body bags.

Republican candidate recently expressed this sentiment during an interview with NBC's "Today Show." The former senator from Pennsylvania was concerned that male soldiers would just want to protect fellow women soldiers during a fight, explaining, "when see a woman in harm's way…It's natural. It's very much in our culture to be protective."

There are also concerns that women will interfere with group bonding and cohesion – the same arguments that long interfered with the integration of African Americans and gay people into the military.

But on the ground, according to anecdotal reports, women at war are already doing many more combat-like activities than their job descriptions imply, making it hard for them to get the recognition they deserve or to advance to top-level positions. As women continue to push for more equality (as they have been for more than a century), it may be only a matter of time before they are officially allowed to do everything that male soldiers do – and finally get acknowledged for it.

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