There are important caveats, and change will not happen overnight for women who have already been serving and dying in the past decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where nearly 300,000 of them have deployed.
But the decision by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with the support of President Barack Obama, sets into motion a process that will open thousands of jobs to women in America’s armed forces and an expand opportunities for career advancement.
“The department’s goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender,” Panetta said in a statement.
Panetta, who is to address a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, made the decision after the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to move forward with efforts to integrate women “to the maximum extent possible,” according to a statement.
It was not immediately clear what roles within the military might remain off-limits. A Pentagon statement alluded to the need to validate performance standards for specialty positions. Physical strength, for example, might be one of those standards.
The military services will have until May 15 to submit a plan on how they will comply by 2016. That plan will guide how quickly the new combat jobs open up and whether the services will seek exemptions to keep some closed to women.
The move knocks down another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces, after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban on women in combat, applauded the planned move, which rescinds a 1994 policy preventing women from serving in small front-line combat units.
For many women service-members, the move is belated acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war, in which there were often no clearly defined front lines.
Women serve in combat roles for the armed forces of a few developed nations, including Canada and Israel, but officials say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very low. In 2010, Britain decided after a review that it would not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat teams.
“I feel like it’s beyond time,” said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.