A battle that several University of Virginia law students and a professor were fighting to allow women the right to serve in combat roles ended Thursday when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced he is lifting a ban prohibiting women from serving in combat.
The group, which called itself the Molly Pitcher Project, helped identify clients for a federal discrimination lawsuit against the military’s policies and advised the team of lawyers who were working on the effort.
“It’s huge,” law professor Anne Coughlin said. “This is a tremendously important development because it appears to be the case that Secretary Panetta agrees that the combat exclusion policy violates the constitutional rights of female service members.”
At a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, Panetta noted that women have already been serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the ban, and that the policy shift reflects that reality.
"The fact is, they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission," he said. "For more than a decade of war they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism."
Coughlin added that it may be too early to know precisely how Panetta’s order will be implemented. For example, she said, early news reports suggested that the military could have three years to make the necessary changes and that the military might be given some latitude to identify certain positions that would remain unavailable to women.
“But even with all of those cautions in mind, this is a very big step in achieving full equality for women in combat,” she said.
On Thursday, Panetta said the military is formally rescinding the ”direct ground combat exclusion rule for women” and is moving forward with a plan to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service.
Women make up 15 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active service members. More than 200,000 women have served in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 800 have been wounded and 152 have died.
According to news reports, the policy change could open more than 230,000 jobs to women.
The lawsuit, filed in May, alleged that the Defense Department and U.S. Army were violating the law and infringing upon the constitutional rights of military servicewomen by excluding them from certain ground combat units and other positions solely on the basis of their gender.
At the time, Coughlin said the project’s objective was to “eliminate this last vestige of formal discrimination against women by the federal government, and ensure that women in the military have the same opportunities and the same obligations as men.”
On Wednesday, the four law students who formed the Molly Pitcher Project – Helen O’Beirne, Rebecca Cohn, Ariel Linet and Kyle Mallinak – said Panetta’s announcement was a significant step forward for equality.
“Today’s news is a tribute to the women who have risked their lives for our country throughout its history,” Mallinak said. “We look forward to the establishment of rigorous combat standards that can be applied to infantry soldiers of both genders. We also look forward to the day when the success of female combat soldiers will demonstrate that the combat ban was as irrational and unnecessary as the rules that once prevented women from being sailors, pilots or members of the service academies.”
O’Beirne called Panetta’s decision the “right, and constitutional, move.”
“Gender alone will no longer stand in the way of qualified women serving in our military,” she said. “I just hope this moves faster than ‘at all deliberate speed,’ and that the requests for exceptions are few. Assuming the lawsuit had something to do with this decision, I’m honored to have participated in a small way.”
Linet said she is “incredibly heartened by the Pentagon’s recognition of the value of women in military roles.”
“Through the Pitcher Project, we have met incredible servicewomen whose qualifications for combat cannot reasonably be questioned,” she said. “Our military will be better because the combat ban is gone, and I’m so grateful for the many advocates whose hard work contributed to this moment.”
When Cohn heard the news late Wednesday afternoon, she ran to Coughlin’s office, hugged the professor and they “jumped for joy.” At the same time, Cohn added, she feels somewhat cautious about the policy shift.
“When the report came out in February 2012 opening up a number of positions for women in the military, all of the news stations were saying the ground combat exclusion was lifted,” she said. “In reality, it was just a Band-Aid. We are hopeful that this is the real deal.”
Coughlin said she is profoundly grateful for the efforts of the four law students in the Molly Pitcher Project, which is named after the story — based on real accounts — of a woman in the Revolutionary War who took her husband's place in firing a cannon on British forces.
“I’ve been teaching and lecturing and studying this issue for years,” she said. “It was these four students who stepped up and said, ‘Time to stop teaching. Time to start walking through the academy doors and try to do something in the world.’ They’re the ones who inspired us. The litigation is about the plaintiffs. If there’s a victory, the victory has been won not by litigation, but by the women who did the work in the field of combat and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could do it. But my students also [had a hand in it].”