MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now for some reaction to that decision, we turn to Anne Coughlin. She's a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, and her research inspired a lawsuit brought by two women in the Army Reserve seeking to reverse that ban. The suit argues the ban is unconstitutional. Anne Coughlin, welcome to the program.
ANNE COUGHLIN: Thank you so much, Melissa. I'm happy to be here.
BLOCK: And first, your thoughts when you heard this decision from Secretary Panetta today.
COUGHLIN: My first reaction was that this is just a huge development, really significant statement by the secretary that the combat exclusion policy is a violation of the equality rights of female service members. At the same time, we are cautious and will remain cautious until we've actually read the text of his order and see precisely what it provides in terms of the directions that it gives the military in terms of implementing the new order and also in terms of giving them the opportunity to identify certain jobs that should continue to be off-limits to women.
BLOCK: Would you accept the notion that there would be some jobs that would be off-limits, as you say?
COUGHLIN: I guess that it would be really difficult to convince me of that case. You know, our legal position is that the equal protection clause forbids the government to say to a woman: You can't do this job merely because you're a woman. Instead, what the government has to do, like every other employer, is identify the precise characteristics, job qualifications and so forth, and then let individual people - male and female - compete for those jobs. So as long as the government sets the correct standards, criteria for performance in these jobs, why not open them up and let women compete?
BLOCK: The two women I mentioned in the Army Reserve, Command Sergeant Major Jane Baldwin and Colonel Ellen Haring, what have they told you about why they think the ban on women in combat has been discriminatory? How has it affected them?
COUGHLIN: Both of these women are well along into their careers. There's jobs advancement that they just can't have. So 80 percent of the leadership positions in the military are drawn from the combat arms specialties. And women just can't have those specialties. And so that means that they just can't advance through the ranks and up the hierarchy in the same way that their male counterparts can.
BLOCK: It sounds like you're describing a glass ceiling or, I guess, in the military, it would be a brass ceiling.
COUGHLIN: A brass ceiling, yes. It's not glass because it's absolutely bulletproof. And again, this is a very extraordinary thing for the federal government to have been doing in the 21st century, saying to people you cannot have this job because of your sex. You might fit, you might be strong, you might be psychologically durable, but you're a woman, and you just can't do it.
BLOCK: What about the argument, though, from people who are saying this idea woman in combat is a bad idea, that unit cohesion could be really put at risk with this?
COUGHLIN: That's one of the arguments that the government has advanced. It's one of the arguments that we were expecting to hear in response to our lawsuit. And I take it that Secretary Panetta has been persuaded that the argument is without merit. So I'll have to say I agree with him. I think that that argument rests on stereotypes about the appropriate roles for males and females and for the kinds of friendships that we can imagine rise between men and women. It rests on the idea that if you put men and women together in closed quarters, there's necessarily going to be some kind of rivalry, perhaps some kind of sexual flirtation that will arise, and they just can't bond in the same way that a single-sex unit can.
COUGHLIN: That argument is based on stereotypes. And the work that we've seen women doing in Afghanistan and Iraq gives the lie to that argument as well as to others.
BLOCK: Well, Anne Coughlin, thanks so much for talking with us.
COUGHLIN: Thank you. It's been an honor to be here.
BLOCK: That's Professor Anne Coughlin, professor at the University of Virginia law school. She heads the Molly Pitcher Project whose research inspired a lawsuit filed by two women in the Army Reserve seeking to overturn the military's policy excluding women from combat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.