Lieutenant General Gina Grosso would be the last person to call herself a pioneer. When asked whether it’s meaningful to be the first woman to ever hold her position as the U.S. Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services—a position created nearly 50 years ago—the three-star general pauses thoughtfully before offering a cheerful and pragmatic, “No.”

She clarifies: “I feel like I’m an Airman just like any other Airman. It’s not at all meaningful to me that I’m the first woman. It’s really an honor to be promoted to this grade no matter what your gender is.” She attributes her successes to hard work, good luck, and a knack for problem solving that she honed as a math and business major at Carnegie Mellon University, where she earned a BS from CMU’s Tepper School of Business in 1986, with a double major in Applied Mathematics.

But Grosso, whether she considers herself to be or not, is pioneering, helping to establish precedent for jobs women can hold and thrive in, in the military. She’s one of only a few dozen female generals in the Air Force, and one of only approximately 7% of the high-ranking officers who are female. In her position, she acts as the human resources director for the entire Air Force, serving more than 680,000 military and civilian Airmen, not to mention their families. She loves that her job allows her the daily opportunity to do good for those who, as she put it, “have chosen to serve their country at a pretty tumultuous time and deserve the best that we can give them.”

Her promotion to lieutenant general and her assumption of duties happened on October 15, 2015, just 48 days before another pioneering move for the military, albeit on a much grander scale and wider scope: opening all combat positions to women. Though Grosso’s personal career trajectory isn’t affected by the decision, she praises its dedication to inclusion—inclusion being a strategic imperative of the Air Force that she takes to heart. “If you’re seen as a place where women can thrive, I think it will open up a great pool of talented people,” says Grosso, who—after earning her undergraduate degree at CMU—completed master’s degrees at the College of William and Mary and the College of Naval Command and Staff, as well as a fellowship at Harvard. “In the end,” she believes, “it will be a tremendous net gain.”

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, right, gives the oath of office to Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso during her promotion ceremony in the Pentagon. Grosso is the 31st Airman to serve as the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services in the 47 years of the position's existence. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)

A history of women in the military at the frontlines in combat positions would perhaps most accurately begin with women pretending to be men in order to serve. Even in antiquity, ancient poems and texts from various cultures recount tales of women who dressed as men and fought valiantly alongside their fellow soldiers. We’ve all heard of fifth-century Chinese heroine Mulan, but how about Trojan War soldier Epipole of Carystus? (Her story is less well known, perhaps, because after her true identity was revealed, her compatriots stoned her to death.)

Fast-forwarding through the centuries, even before the United States was the United States, there are accounts of women disguising themselves as men in order to fight. During the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson passed herself off as “Robert Shurtleff” for a year and a half, serving in the Continental Army and even being promoted and eventually receiving a pension.

In the book They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook chronicle the exploits of secret female soldiers in the Civil War, of which there are more than 250 documented cases. Even as recently as World War I, women like Poland’s Wanda Gertz, Great Britain’s Dorothy Lawrence, and Russia’s Zoya Smirnowa were cutting their hair and binding their chests so they could see combat.

This brief and incomplete history of women on the front lines does not take into account the crucial roles that non-military women have always played in wartime—that of fundraiser, volunteer, and supply-collector; of nurse and caretaker; and of breadwinner, assuming jobs vacated by men called up or enlisted to serve.

But to appreciate how far military women have come in the United States, it’s necessary to see where they started. According to Michael Neiberg, the chair of war studies at the U.S. Army War College, initially integrating women into military service meant something a little different.

“It meant trying to find positions that women could do so that the men could go into combat positions,” says Neiberg, who in 1996 earned his PhD in history from CMU’s Dietrich College. “So in World War I and World War II, there was a very clear demarcation.”

He points to a statue in New Orleans dedicated to the female marines of World War II, which depicts a symbolic figure named “Molly Marine.” An inscription implores women to “be a marine” by “free[ing] a marine to fight.” To Neiberg, this statue does more than just honor the female marines of the war; it memorializes the social and political tension of needing and wanting to include women in the military while simultaneously keeping them away from combat.

Neiberg’s interest in military history has little to do with combat strategy and great battles; he specifically sought out CMU for his PhD so that he could study with faculty he knew were interested in the same thing he was, namely, “How do democracies deal with having these essentially undemocratic institutions among them?”—these institutions being the armed forces. The shifting role of women in the military is a good example of one such social negotiation. “How does a democratic society build something that can serve its interests without threatening its values?” he summarizes.

World War II saw the creation of women’s reserve corps. But even so, these auxiliary corps were just that—auxiliary—and kept out of combat. The next leap forward came in the 1960s, an era that ushered in many expansions of civil rights and gender equality. Starting in the ’60s, there was a push for integration, and the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC)—a program for college students to receive officer training and, often, academic scholarships—officially opened to young women.

In 1976, the military service academies began admitting women. Though schools like West Point and Annapolis are still dominated by men—and indeed, more women still become officers through ROTC than through the service academies—Neiberg postulates that opening the academies to women was perhaps the largest symbolic victory, when women breached the walls of these all-male bastions.

But in 1988, a Department of Defense (DoD) task force instituted what Neiberg calls a convoluted and bureaucratic policy called the Risk Rule. The rule gave each job—including noncombat jobs—a score based on how dangerous it was, and it barred women from taking jobs above a certain threshold of risk.

Only six years later, in 1994, the Risk Rule was rescinded by the Clinton administration. As defense secretary at the time, Les Aspin stated that instead of the Risk Rule, all noncombat positions were fair game, but the tacit understanding that women didn’t serve on the front lines was made explicit: The U.S. military officially banned women from direct ground combat positions.

A push to change all this from the top down, rather than allowing each branch to open positions at its discretion, started in 2011, the year when President Obama also repealed the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving if they were openly homosexual. That same year, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission made a formal recommendation to open all combat positions to women, and the Obama administration set a deadline for the military: By January 2016, all combat positions had to allow for full integration. In the meantime, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in 2013 that the 1994 ban would be lifted.

“I get uncomfortable when people talk about ‘the DoD opening this up’ or ‘the Army opening that up,’” says Neiberg. “It really is often women themselves pushing to have those positions open against the reluctance of the government and against the reluctance of the DoD.” Indeed, a 2012 lawsuit initiated by servicewomen alleges that an inability to serve in combat positions violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause.

The suit stated that since September 11th:

“85 percent [of deployed women] reported serving in a combat zone or in an area where they drew imminent danger pay or hostile fire pay, and nearly half reported being involved in combat operations. Many of those women have served in combat with distinction. But they have been deprived of the training, opportunities, and recognition they deserve because, under the combat exclusion policy, they cannot ‘officially’ be assigned to ground combat units.”

But that gray area has more or less disappeared with the DoD’s most recent decision. Just ahead of the 2016 deadline, on December 3, 2015, current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that all combat positions would officially open to women in the military—an additional 220,000 jobs.

Grosso points out that this decision affects some branches more than others. “We’ve integrated women much sooner than the other services, and that’s because by law, there’s a direct ground combat exclusion”—the operative word for the Air Force is “ground.” Of about 315,000 active-duty positions, Grosso estimates that roughly only 4,000 of those were closed to servicewomen. Research firm RAND confirms her assertion: 99% of positions in the Air Force are already open to women. Compare that to 88% of positions in the Navy and just 66% and 68% for the Army and Marine Corp, respectively, and it’s no surprise that the Air Force boasts the highest percentage of women of any branch, about 20%.

The decision to open these positions, though widely lauded, has been met with some skepticism, including resistance from Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who declined to be on stage when the announcement was made by Secretary Carter.

Although Neiberg concedes that there could be sexist reasons for wanting to continue to exclude women, he attributes the previous lack of parity and any hesitation about the decision more to the inherent conservatism (with a lowercase C) of large institutions—especially those with as much at stake as the military. “This is life and death for individuals and potentially for nations as well,” he explains. “This isn’t something you do because you want to feel good or for reasons of social equality. This is something you do for survivability.”

That kind of organizational inertia can sometimes take the form of rigid adherence to the way things have always been, which prompts Neiberg to question the status quo. Aside from the fact, often glossed over in recent press coverage, that the only thing changing is the opportunity for women to meet the standards, not the standards themselves, Neiberg argues that in some cases, the qualifications for certain positions may be outdated anyway. Combat has evolved significantly over the years, and physical standards, based entirely on male performance, may actually ignore things that some studies show women do better—tolerating G-forces, withstanding hot and humid climates, and performing certain exercises where stamina and endurance are more important than strength.

“Gender was never a proper qualification,” Grosso asserts. “There are men that can’t meet the physical and mental challenges, and there are women that will or will not be able to. I think the fact that we don’t have this artificial barrier is good for the force. If you can do it, you can do it. If you can’t, you can’t.”

Forcible, legislated inclusion might seem at cross-purposes with our general feel-good understanding of equality, which prizes winning over the hearts and minds of the skeptical and sexist. Hearts and minds are all very well and good, but they are notoriously wily. So it makes sense to effect change first where the military has total control: the boots on the ground, the posts and assignments, the paperwork and promotions. Very few other organizations can boast that a top-down policy change usually means total and unquestioned implementation.

Chain of command is sacred in the military. Higher-ranking women must be respected and obeyed—at least in deed if not in thought—or the disrespectful or disobedient party risks insubordination, a punishable offense in the military justice system.

“The one thing that’s very equalizing in the military is our uniform,” Grosso says.

“There are no other nations in the world that offer women the opportunities that the United States does, and that is worth protecting and defending.”
Lieutenant General Gina Grosso

The armed forces are more purely meritocratic organizations than most. Clear but rigid standards and hierarchical structure mean that there’s less room for politics and personalities. If you can do the work, if you can meet the standard, if you put in the time, you will advance. That kind of formulaic performance evaluation is either a feature of the system or a bug plaguing it, depending on your perspective.

When it comes to equality, mandatory inclusion may be superficial temporarily, but it will eventually result in permanent parity. Standardization across genders in the military is already serving women in ways not reflected in the broader working world.

“Rank completely trumps your gender. Your pay is based on your rank,” explains Grosso, by way of example. “Every major makes the same amount of basic pay whether you’re male or female.” How many other organizations can claim institutionalized equal pay?

Before her recent promotion, Grosso was the director of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office. The SAPR office was created more than a decade ago, after a task force determined that there was a need for a more centralized and powerful way to address and prevent sexual assault in the armed forces. As recently as 2011, Newsweek magazine reported that a woman in the military was more likely to be raped by another service member than killed in combat. Fear of retaliation remains a barrier to reporting such assaults, so the processes and procedures put in place often don’t even get a chance to work on behalf of victims—a culture problem perhaps more difficult to address. It’s one thing for women to be included in every corner of the military; it’s another for them to feel safe and welcome.

Despite these challenges, Grosso says the work she did with SAPR office was rewarding, in part because stamping out sexual assault in the Air Force actually feels possible to her, not just a pipe dream.

“I have great hope,” she says. “What’s unique about the military is that we have a tremendous amount of resources. And our ability to apply resources to the problem is probably greater than any other institution, I would argue. We have our own justice system. We have the criminal jurisdiction. We own the process from cradle to grave. We own our own medical system. But really, we set an expectation for our culture that this is unacceptable—this crime will not be tolerated. And not only should Airmen not perpetrate the crime, Airmen have to create a culture where this is not possible. And that’s every Airman’s responsibility.”

Both Grosso and Neiberg think that the decision to open combat positions to women will only aid efforts to curb sexual assault as women become more of a presence in the male-dominated force. Neiberg acknowledges that although the specter of sexual assault has loomed large over the armed forces recently, “it is not, however, an argument for keeping women out of positions they are qualified to do.”

Young women seem to be taking this to heart. The ROTC program for the Army—currently the branch with the smallest percentage of women—proudly reports that 20% of its ROTC cadets nationwide are women.

CMU students can participate in all branches of ROTC, but only the Naval ROTC unit is hosted on campus. The other branches are hosted down the street at the University of Pittsburgh, and all three branches are attended by students from both universities as well as Duquesne University, further downtown. Grosso started her career in the Air Force in ROTC while at CMU, but she says that she was motivated more by the scholarship opportunities than any particular affinity for the force. In fact, she planned to serve her time, get her MBA, and become a “corporate mogul.”

“It wasn’t really my plan to stay for this long,” she says, now entering her 30th year as an Airman, “but I was really happy.”

Midshipman First Class Carly Bair is a senior Technical Writing major in CMU’s Naval ROTC. In May, she’ll go to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and become a naval flight officer. She estimates that about a quarter of her unit are women, though her 2015 class of 18 is fully a third female—it’s inconsistent across years. Bair’s commanding officer, Captain Jeff Coran, echoes her assertion and says that it’s always a goal for the armed services to become a more attractive career choice for women and minorities. Even so, Coran describes his unit as “progressive.”

“There’s not a whole lot that we do except for value everybody for who they want to be,” Coran says sincerely. He instills in his charges the idea of “service over self,” asking them to understand that they’re all working within the limitations of the organization but still for the greater good. Just last year, his unit sent off one of the first women selected for the submarine force: University of Pittsburgh engineer Ensign Samantha Barszowski.

Bair happily reports that she hasn’t faced outright discrimination or sexism from ROTC leadership or comrades, but she is aware of her performance perhaps in a way her male colleagues are not. “In certain circumstances, you may want to ‘keep up with the guys,’” she says, but she emphasizes that a lot of people in the military have a strong competitive drive regardless, so that mindset is not something the military puts upon her. “We want to be the best, regardless of gender. You find yourself in your head trying to be better, trying to beat out not necessarily just the women but also the guys.”

Bair’s attitude, looking beyond gender parameters, is something Grosso doesn’t take for granted. “There are no other nations in the world that offer women the opportunities that the United States does,” says Grosso, “and that is worth protecting and defending.”

Helping pave the way for those opportunities were the first female generals in the U.S. military, Brigadier Generals Elizabeth P. Hoisington and Anna Mae Hay, who were promoted 46 years ago, in the summer of 1970. The Army chief of staff overseeing their promotions, General William C. Westmoreland, kissed both women squarely on the mouth when they got their stars. Time magazine reported on the event, quipping that normally “generals caught kissing each other would be likely to lose their stars.”

That brief anecdote says a lot of things about our military, but perhaps none more loudly than just how much it has progressed in the intervening years.