When the Pentagon First Let Women Fly in Combat (1993)

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Twenty-two years ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered the chiefs of the military to drop the prohibition on women flying in combat missions.  

As with desegregating the military or allowing homosexuals to openly serve, the situation called for an order from the top. The Air Force chief of staff agreed to allow women to fly in combat if Congress passed it into law, but he made his discomfort known. "Personally, I am not eager to increase exposure of our women to additional risk," Gen. Merrill McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, was quoted as saying in the Baltimore Sun.



Women’s influence in Washington was growing at the time. The popular press had dubbed 1992 the “Year of the Woman” because the U.S. had elected four female Senators, more than ever before. Only two women served in the Senate in 1991: Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Nancy Kassenbaum of Kansas. Patty Murray of Washington, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California joined them in '93.

Congress approved the proposal in that environment. By 1995, Martha McSally became the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, flying an A-10 Thunderbolt II on a mission in Iraq.

Twenty years later, while the military grapples with rampant sexual assault, the Pentagon has opened more combat roles to women. For the first time this year, women are training to be become Army Rangers. During the latest round of Ranger school, 19 women arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia. Only half, eight, remain, about the same percentage as a typical Ranger course.

Women still can’t become Navy Seals, though, and the arguments against allowing women are the same ones that kept women out of Ranger school and off submarines—until political leaders said it was time for a change.

But perhaps the way Washington and the military operate will change, too.
Within the military, more women than ever before are reaching leadership roles—the Air Force is led by Deborah James. Vice Adm. Michelle Howard is the Navy’s second-in-command, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger leads Air Force Materiel Command and Gen. Lori Robinson commands Pacific Air Forces.

On Capitol Hill, three of the four women elected to the Senate in 1992 are leading key committees. And Martha McSally, who became the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat as a result of Aspin’s 1993 policy, is now serving her first term in Congress.

 

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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