U.S. Army Ends Sexist “Leaders First” Policy in Combat Units After Challenge by Women Servicemembers

DoD Action Removes Final Barrier to Women’s Equal Access to Combat Roles in the Army

March 14, 2023 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – The United States Army announced an end to a policy that bars enlisted women from joining combat battalions unless two or more women “leaders” are already assigned to those units. The policy impeded active duty servicewomen’s ability to serve on equal footing after the DoD ordered women’s full integration into combat roles in December 2015 following a lawsuit by the ACLU. It was the target of a subsequent ACLU court challenge on behalf of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

“The end of this sexist policy is a long overdue coda to the DoD’s landmark decision, nearly a decade ago, to open all combat roles to active duty servicewomen,” said Ria Tabacco Mar, Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Leaders First was premised on stereotypes about women’s ability to succeed in formerly all-male units, and it shifted the burden of achieving gender parity from military leaders onto servicewomen themselves.”

Although the Army’s policy change also formally applies to the Army National Guard, more than half of the states and territories with National Guard combat units continue to maintain Leaders First policies. A version of the policy also remains in place in the United States Marine Corps.

“Our organization will continue to work with Congress, the Biden Administration, and the states to end the use of Leaders First by the National Guard,” said DeShauna Barber, SWAN’s Chief Executive Officer. “We hope the Army’s positive step will encourage other branches of the military to follow suit.” Barber added, “We also intend to ensure that the Marines’ other facially discriminatory policy, sex-segregated boot camp, is lifted by 2028, as mandated by Congress three years ago. Our organization will continue supporting servicewomen and women veterans nationwide.”

In November 2012, SWAN and four servicewomen filed a lawsuit challenging the ban on women in combat positions with the help of the ACLU, the ACLU of Northern California, and Munger, Tolles & Olsen LLP. In January 2013, shortly before DOD was scheduled to answer the complaint, DoD officially rescinded the combat exclusion policy, a 1994 directive that barred women from being assigned to most ground combat units, totaling roughly 240,000 positions.

In December 2015, DoD announced that all military jobs, units, and schools would officially be open to women “without exception” — yet the Marine Corps maintained its policy of sex-segregated boot camp, and both the Army and the Marines imposed the Leaders First policy, both of which treat women joining combat units differently than men solely on the basis of gender.


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