Will Campaign Shift from 'War on Women' to 'Women Who War'?

The 2012 race for the White House may be inundated by a “war on women” meme, but the question of “women who war” could also loom big for President Obama and Mitt Romney as members of Congress renew a push to lift barriers for women in combat.

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, moved out of the Armed Services Committee before the upper chamber left for recess, included the wording of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) legislation that would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on steps to repeal the ground combat exclusion policy.

“Women are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform on the frontlines, but without the formal recognition that is essential for them to advance and obtain the benefits they have earned,” Gillibrand said. “Just like it was wrong to discriminate against service members because of whom they love, it is also wrong to deny combat roles to qualified women solely because of their gender.”

Companion legislation was introduced in the House nearly two weeks ago by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.). “Though the Pentagon has taken some small steps to remove restrictions on female service, they have not yet made a real commitment to a formal repeal,” Sanchez said. “It’s time to do what is right and recognize these women for what they do every day in Afghanistan and around the world. They have amazing potential and it’s time we develop their talents and contributions with the same training and opportunities as we give our servicemen.”

Every year, Sanchez, who is founder and chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Women in the Military, has offered an amendment to the defense bill to allow women to fully serve in combat roles.

But this renewed push comes on the heels of February’s Department of Defense announcement that  it was opening 14,325 new jobs up to women, including front-line support positions such as tank mechanic and field artillery radar operator. The two changes to the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule went into effect May 14.

The Pentagon said at the time that the change, which had no effect on women’s banishment from infantry positions, was just the “beginning, not the end, of a process.”

Opponents of the ground combat exclusion argue that current rules impede women from moving up in the ranks, as combat experience is required for certain advancements.

A February survey by Rasmussen Reports found 54 percent favor full combat roles for women in the military — even as Green Berets and Navy SEALs, provided they pass the same physical tests as men. Twenty-two percent of likely voters surveyed thought that women already engaged in full combat roles.

Another February poll by Quinnipiac University found 75 percent in favor of allowing women to engage in close ground combat. “All party, age, income, religious and education groups support the measure,” the survey noted.

A March 2011 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 73 percent favored women in combat, even 58 percent of those identifying as “very conservative.” Among men and women, 73 percent of women and 72 percent of men favored combat service alongside men.

The political breakdown in that poll was 80 percent Democrats, 62 percent Republicans, and 73 percent of independents in favor of repealing the combat restrictions.

Among former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) famous remarks on the primary trail was a February CNN interview in which he voiced “concerns” about women in front-line combat. “I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved,” he said.

He later clarified on NBC that he meant women’s presence could have an impact on the men serving. “When you have men and women together in combat, I think men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way,” he said. “I think it’s natural. It’s very much in our culture to be protective. That was my concern. I think that’s a concern with all of the militaries.”

Martha McSally, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the first American woman to fly in combat, who vied for the Republican nomination to fill Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords’ seat, said she wanted to kick Santorum “in the jimmy” for those remarks, arguing he’s “completely out of touch.”

But it’s not an issue on which Democrats can claim they’re unilaterally pushing for women’s rights.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, in his February speech to CPAC, noted that his daughter, an Iraq veteran, got the job done without emotions getting in the way.

“There were a couple of times when she’d call and tell me about the small arms fire that she’d encountered, either in her Humvee or in the Blackhawk,” McDonnell said. “And yes, I did get a little bit emotional. But she didn’t. She got the job done.”

In February, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) wrote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, urging him to “go further” in opening combat roles for women.

“As a 32-year member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, I believe women should be able to serve in front line positions if they desire,” Brown wrote. “I am mindful of the fact that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of 140 women serving as Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen. Their service was honorable and reflective of the day-to-day reality of modern warfare and the contributions made by female service members.”

“Closing these opportunities to women affect their ability to develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks,” the senator added. “We have an obligation to expand the professional opportunities available to women, especially considering their sacrifices. Doing so in my view would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it.”

But where do the presidential contenders stand, and will it make a difference in campaign 2012 when greater issues of women’s rights and defense readiness are at play?

It’s Obama’s Pentagon that is taking an incremental approach to women in combat roles as it simultaneously hails the lifting of the Clinton-era “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving openly in the military.

But Obama has been relatively quiet on the issue of women in combat. His only hint at the issue was in this month’s commencement address at Barnard College, where he dropped a nugget of combat into a greater glass-ceiling meme. “Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one,” he said.

Romney said in February’s CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., that he would “look to the people who are serving in the military to give the best assessment of where women can serve.”

He said that “women have the capacity to serve in our military in positions of significance and responsibility,” then steered his answer toward criticism of Obama’s handling of defense policy and drawdowns.

What could push the question of women in combat to the forefront more than acts of Congress, though, is the same way in which DADT found itself in hot water: when the Log Cabin Republicans brought suit against the policy.

Last Wednesday, two female Army Reserve officers sued the Pentagon in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the combat ban, alleging the government violates the constitutional rights of servicewomen by excluding them from certain ground combat units and other positions solely on the basis of their gender. Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring charge that current policies have hindered their career advancement.

The lawsuit stems from a University of Virginia School of Law project, named after Battle of Monmouth fighter Molly Pitcher, that seeks to overturn the combat ban.

“We want 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,” professor Anne Coughlin said in a statement. “No other employer in the country may tell a woman that she is barred from the job merely because she is a woman. It is time for the Pentagon to stop relying on sex as a proxy for fitness to serve.”