An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2011

Defending America in Mixed Company: Gender in the U.S. Armed Forces

Martha E. McSally

Women have voluntarily served to defend America since the birth of our nation, often driven by necessity or the fight for equal opportunity, but always limited by law or policy grounded in accepted gender roles and norms. Today, women compose 14 percent of the total active-duty military, and more than 255,000 have deployed to combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite their exemplary service and performance in combat, women are still restricted from serving in more than 220,000 military positions solely because of their sex. Women also continue to be exempt from the Selective Service System, for which their male counterparts are required by law to register. Are these continued inconsistencies between the sexes in the area of national defense incongruent with democratic tenets? Have we gone too far or not far enough in allowing or compelling women to defend the nation if required?

MARTHA E. MCSALLY is Professor of National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. After more than twenty-two years of active duty, she retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Colonel in August 2010. She was one of seven women first selected to become fighter pilots after Congress repealed the restriction in 1991 and the Department of Defense changed its policy in 1993. She was the first woman in U.S. history to fly a fighter in combat and to command a fighter squadron. Her military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Bronze Star.

May all our citizens be soldiers and all our soldiers citizens.

–A toast by Sarah Livingston Jay, the wife of John Jay, at a ball celebrating the end of the Revolution (Fall 1783)1

Women have served as volunteers in the defense of America since the birth of our nation, often driven by necessity or the fight for equal opportunity, but always limited by law or policy grounded in accepted gender roles and norms. Today, women make up more than 14 percent of the active-duty military force; since 2001, more than 255,000 have deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which more than 130 have been killed and almost 700 wounded.2  As of April 2011, despite their exemplary performance in direct combat roles in the air, sea, and on the ground, women as a group are still banned by Department of Defense (DOD) policy from being assigned to more than 220,000 of the 1.4+ million authorized active-duty positions–regardless of their individual abilities and qualifications.3 While every American male is required by law, as a basic obligation of . . .


  • 1The title of this essay derives in part from the statement “national defense can be pursued in mixed company,” as included in Mary Ann Tetreault, “Gender Belief Systems and the Integration of Women in the U.S. Military,” Minerva Quarterly Report on Women and the Military 6 (1) (1988): 44–62. Toast from Sarah Livingston Jay quoted in Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 236.
  • 2Information on women serving active duty provided by Lory Manning at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, July 2010. Due to the increase in Army and Marine combat units since 2002, and the prohibition on women serving in those units, the total percentage dropped from 15 percent in 2002 to 14.3 percent in 2009. Information on women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq from the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, HR 5136, 111th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record (June 28, 2010): sec. 534. For updated numbers, see
  • 3See “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule,” a memorandum from Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, Air Force, et al., January 13, 1994; and General Accounting Office (GAO), National Security & International Affairs Division, Gender Issues: Information on DOD’s Assignment Policy and Direct Ground Combat Definition (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 1998), Because the Army and Marines have increased their numbers of combat units since this GAO study, the number of positions closed to women is now higher.
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