News & Events
Posted Jan. 30, 2013

Symposium to Consider Next Steps in Women in Combat Debate

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Women in Combat

Under an order issued last week by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, U.S. military women will now be able to serve in ground combat roles. A symposium co-organized by a UVA law professor will be held in Washington, D.C., on Friday to consider what happens next..

Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the longstanding ban on U.S. military women serving in combat positions. On Friday, a symposium organized by a University of Virginia law professor and a female colonel in the Army Reserves will explore the next steps in the path toward full equality in the armed forces.

Contact: Brian McNeill

The symposium, "Women in Combat: The Way Forward," will be held Friday, Feb. 1 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Washington, D.C. The event is co-sponsored by SIPRI North America, the Service Women's Action Network, Women in International Security, and the University of Virginia School of Law.

The conference is open to the public, but registration is required.

The event is the brain child of UVA law professor Anne Coughlin and Col. Ellen Haring, who has served in the Army for nearly three decades and is currently assigned to the Joint Staff, J7, Joint and Coalition Warfighting Center in Suffolk, Va., as a joint concepts officer.

Coughlin and four UVA Law students formed the Molly Pitcher Project, which in 2012 inspired and contributed to the nation's first federal lawsuit seeking the reversal of military policies banning women from serving in combat specialties or units. Haring is one of the lawsuit's two plaintiffs. Coughlin called Haring and her co-plaintiff, Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin, "genuine heroes for their courageous decision to step up and be the very first to make a formal challenge to the policies that barred women from serving in certain positions merely because they are women."

Coughlin and Haring originally intended for the symposium to weigh the arguments for and against lifting the combat exclusion policy. In the week since Panetta's order, however, the conference has been swiftly refocused to delve into questions about what comes next.

"What we're interested in now is the path forward," Coughlin said. "The most crucial decision has been made for us by the secretary of defense, namely, that the combat exclusion policy is rescinded because it violates women’s rights to full and equal citizenship.  We are delighted that we don’t have to spend any more time or resources litigating that question. But at the same time, there's going to be a ton of work in the coming weeks, months and even years to resolve questions about how this order will be implemented and how full integration will be achieved."

One question, Coughlin said, will focus on the Defense Department's process of reviewing physical fitness requirements for the combat jobs that will now be open to women.

"Secretary Panetta made it clear that they are not going to water down the standards in any way, shape or form. We've never wanted them to. We've never asked them to change physical standards to accommodate women. Quite the contrary," Coughlin said. "We've always said, 'Just set the job description and let women try out for these jobs.'"

Still, Coughlin added, there will need to be oversight of the process for creating gender-neutral standards for physical fitness and the other qualifications required for participation in the profession of combat arms.

Coughlin said she is particularly interested in one part of Panetta's order that appears to leave open the possibility that certain units or occupational specialties may remain closed to women.

"[The order] says that these exceptions have to be 'narrowly tailored and based on a rigorous analysis of factual data regarding the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the position,'" she said. "By using that language, Secretary Panetta makes it clear that any exceptions to full integration will have to satisfy the stringent equal protection standards imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under that body of law, the government is not allowed to discriminate based on sex unless it can show an exceedingly persuasive justification for doing so — that is, the government has to point to very specific data supporting the classification, and may not rely on stereotypes or a hunch or animosity toward women."

Coughlin added that she and the rest of the Molly Pitcher Project — which is named after the story of a woman in the Revolutionary War who took her husband's place in firing a cannon on British forces — are interested in seeing whether the Defense Department moves quickly in implementing Panetta's order.

"Current media reports suggest that women have been fighting in combat for only the past 10 years," Coughlin said. "In fact, women have fought in every conflict since before the founding of our nation. We’ve been debating and studying the proper role for women in the military for many decades.  Over those years, many recommendations have been made, and not all of them have been fulfilled.  It seems that the military must stop studying and start integrating because Secretary Panetta has imposed a clear timeline for action.”

The symposium will bring together military personnel, academics, lawyers, advocates and policymakers.

Among the scheduled panelists are several women who served in combat, including retired Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who received the Purple Heart Medal and a Prisoner of War Medal for her service in Iraq in 2003; Air National Guard Maj. Mary Hegar, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart in Afghanistan 2009 and is a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over the combat exclusion policy filed in November; Army Spc. Heidi Olson, who received the Purple Heart in Afghanistan in 2012; and Kayla Williams, a former Army intelligence specialist and author of "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army."

The symposium will also feature a number of women who have experienced integration efforts in the U.S. military, as well as the militaries of foreign countries, such as Norway and Canada.

One panel, at 11 a.m., "Concerns about Lifting Combat Restrictions," will feature Col. Todd S. Desgrosseilliers, the commanding officer of the Marine Corps' The Basic School at Quantico, Va., along with other leading officials and academics.

Coughlin will appear on a 1 p.m. panel, "Implications of Full Integration of Women, Peace and Security," alongside U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.; Ariela Migdal, an attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project; and Robert Egnell, a visiting professor and director of teaching at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies.