- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Women in Combat

| Fall/Winter 2017-2018

At Harvard Kennedy School, Carter explains his historic decision to open all military positions to women.

On December 3, 2015, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made an announcement that would transform the U.S. military: all combat jobs in every branch of the military would be open to women.

“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said in his announcement. “As long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. And even more importantly, our military will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that talented women have to offer. They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

At Harvard Kennedy School on September 6, Carter—now Director of the Belfer Center—talked about his decision during a Gender and Security seminar for students organized by Associate Professor of Public Policy Dara Kay Cohen.

In 2015, women had already been serving on the frontlines in the military for a number of years, but there were 220,000 combat positions for which women could not compete. “Because women are half our population in the U.S.,” Carter told the standing room-only crowd of students, “it was a practical necessity of force effectiveness that we reach the entire pool of our population.” In addition, he said, it was important for women already in the military to know that women were in no sense second-class citizens any longer, provided they meet the same standards as men. 

Making and articulating the right decision based on compelling arguments was only part of his challenge, Carter said. The other essential element was “making it stick.” That meant “doing our homework very thoroughly—anticipating the questions and objections that people could have.” He and the Pentagon’s leadership team conducted surveys of the force, looked at comparable organizations and other militaries around the world that had women in combat positions, and looked at SWAT teams and NASA flight crews with mixed gender compositions to see how they worked. 

He also asked all of the services and components of the military to do their own analyses of how this decision would apply to them and to submit their findings to him along with their recommendations. “I read these very carefully,” Carter said, “because there are lots of different circumstances.” After carefully considering arguments and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, he made the decision that there would be no exceptions.

It was important, Carter said, to make the announcement in a very deliberate and low-key way—and that it come from the Pentagon, not the White House, or from leaks to the press. “I wanted to make sure my reasoning and my argument was out there before anyone else had an opportunity to put another kind of argument out,” he said.

Carter’s strategy proved effective. Remarkably, after the announcement, he got no letters from members of Congress disagreeing with his decision.

Today, two years later, Carter said the transition has gone well, although some friction remains. Individual circumstances come up, he said, for instance in countries where women are not allowed to travel unescorted. “You work around cultural and other issues,” he said. “You have to do your best.”

Summing up his decision and the rigorous process that informed it, Carter directed some advice to the students and future leaders in the audience. “When you are trying to do something like this,” he said, “you must not only do the right thing, but also do it the right way.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Women in Combat," Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (Fall/Winter 2017-2018).


Ash Carter