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updated 1/3/2013 4:20:37 PM ET 2013-01-03T21:20:37

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."

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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 [men] 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.

"I would say there are fewer and fewer areas in which women are not participating," said Laura Browder, professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and author of "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Stories of American Women at War." "Congress is full of conservatives who don't like the idea of women in combat, but I do think that sooner or later the laws are going to catch up to reality. And the reality is that women are in combat."


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Early in our nation's history, women participated in war officially only as nurses. Then came World War II, said historian Kara Dixon Vuic, author of "Officer, Nurse, Woman: the Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War." With the nation's great need for bodies to help, women served for the first time as soldiers. They didn't fight, but they fixed trucks and tanks, ferried planes and performed all sorts of other important jobs that had been previously closed off to them.

When the war ended, though, most of the women who had served were cast out of the armed forces by the DOD, which set 3 percent as the maximum percentage of women allowed in the military. That rule held until the end of the Vietnam war, when the draft ended and an all-volunteer army took over.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the U.S. military began to make an active effort to recruit women and open more positions to them. Today, the proportion of women in military branches ranges from fewer than 7 percent in the Marine Corps to 13 percent in the active Army and 24 percent in the Army reserves. As many as 14 percent of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been female, Browder said.

Over the years, women have taken on new roles and responsibilities. But there have always been restrictions and gender-specific treatment. During World War II, Vuic said, female soldiers were taught to wear girdles, high heels and makeup that matched their uniforms. Since the 1990s, policies have focused more on prohibiting women from positions that involve direct ground combat, physically demanding tasks and lack of privacy.

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Since the nature of war has grown far more complex than the old-fashioned battlefield structure, the government has decided to allow women to belong to units that are engaging in direct ground combat. With the new rules, women can now be artillery mechanics, intelligence officers, field surgeons and more. Still, when it comes to fighting up-close in major battles, women are left out.

Even though the government is emphasizing the 14,000 new jobs that are opening up, Major General Gary Patton, principal director for military personnel policy, said in a press conference this week that there are still about 238,000 positions that exclude women across all armed forces. The list includes artillerymen, cavalry, tank crewmen, special forces, submarine and special warfare positions. 

Those remaining barriers may be doing female soldiers a major disservice, Browder said. For her most recent book, she interviewed more than 50 women who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many reported having experiences that could easily be considered combat.

Browder interviewed a number of women who were blown up by IEDs, for example. She met one female soldier who worked as an explosive-sniffing dog handler and found out months into her deployment that she was pregnant. And she talked extensively with a sergeant named Paigh Bumgarner, who was in a convoy that got ambushed by an explosive-filled vehicle. Bumgarner ordered that the vehicle be taken out and saved the lives of many of her friends.

"You can't tell me that's not combat," Browder said.

Bumgarner originally contacted Browder after the sergeant saw the historian mentioned in a newspaper article, which also quoted someone else saying that women don't belong in combat.

"She was so angry," Browder said, "saying that other person was dead wrong and that women need to be acknowledged as being in combat because they're out there putting their lives on the line."

"Women are getting recognized more in terms of winning medals," she added. "But women really need to have the fact that they are engaging in combat acknowledged so they can keep moving up the ladder."

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