Throughout history, women have taken part in battle alongside their male counterparts.
The Romans, the Amazonians and early Chinese dynasties all boasted female fighters.
In the United States, the participation of women in war predates the founding of the country, when women served as nurses, cooks and laundresses during the American Revolution.
World War II brought about the first major changes for women in service.
In 1942, the Army established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. Around that time, the Navy and Air Force also established all female auxiliary branches, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
"The WACs and the WAVES...were basically just given desk jobs during World War II," said Sandra Kolankiewicz, who was the longtime director of the gender studies program at Marietta College.
Though World War II veteran Clair Schwendeman, 89, of Reno, served in the infantry, he said he still remembers seeing plenty of female service members during his time in France, Germany, Austria and Italy.
"In Vienna, Austria, there were about 200 WACs...We also had women that flew planes over into Germany, WASPs," he said.
The purpose of the WASP program was to recruit female pilots in hopes of freeing up more males for ground combat overseas. The women tested new planes and flew them to overseas destinations to be used by their male counterparts in battle.
However, said Schwendeman, WASPs were not intended to be in direct combat situations.
"They flew through combat zones..but they stayed away from combat pretty much," he said.
The WASPs were disbanded in 1944, but they were never in fact considered members of the regular military. They fought for more than 30 years to be granted veteran status, a battle which they finally won in 1977.
In fact, the WAC, WAVES and WASP were all separate entities from the regular military. None of the more than 300,000 women who served in World War II were considered official members of the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.
It was not until three years after the war ended that Congress passed The Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, granting women permanent status in the regular and reserved forces. But at the same time, the law set a 2 percent cap on the female presence in the military.
Even when that cap was lifted in 1968, it took time for the role of women to begin expanding.
"The 70s were a big period of time for women," said Kolankiewicz.
The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War contributed to a wave of expanding social viewpoints. Women, not only in the military, but in society as a whole, began demanding more equitable treatment, she said.
In 1976, the doors to the military's service academies opened to women for the first time, meaning women would receive physical training similar to that of the male recruits.
Cathy Mowrer, 52, of Waterford, joined the Army in the late 70s, during that period of rapidly changing social roles.
"I was right at the end of the WACs, right after they transitioned," she said.
In 1978, the Army decided to disband the WAC, which had remained its own separate entity up until that point, and integrate WAC members into the regular Army.
"My sister had been in the Army in the early 70s. She was a WAC, and her roles were so different," Mowrer said.
Unlike her sister, Mowrer's training consisted of live fire maneuvers, throwing grenades, shooting at tanks and rappelling down walls.
Though Mowrer participated in the same training regimen as the men, it was not thought the women would ever fight alongside them.
"In the late 70s, it wasn't thought of that we would be able to participate in combat," she said.
In fact, it was still "basically a male military," when former Navy hospital medic Nancy Jenkins, 62, of Marietta, joined in 1986. Jenkins, whose emergency response team competed across the country, recalled what it was like being the only female on the 15 person team.
"We would go to a competition...and there would be places where the men could change but there wasn't a place for women," she said.
Still, Jenkins said her teammates treated her as "just one of the guys." And there were other signs of change during her eight years in the Navy.
"My medical unit was being trained to go over to Afghanistan," she said.
Jenkins left the Navy in 1994, another year of big changes for women in the military.
That year, the Clinton administration opened up more than a quarter-million military positions previously off-limits for women. However, at the same time, the administration enacted the combat exclusion policy, which still prevents women from serving in direct ground combat positions, such as infantry, armor and special forces units.
Many disagree with the policy, which has the potential to be the next major shift for female service members.
"I don't care if a man or woman does the job, as long as they're qualified to do it. I see nothing wrong with women going into combat," said Jenkins.
The combat exclusion policy is currently being challenged in two separate legal battles. In the most recent lawsuit, four female servicewomen are suing the Department of Defense, calling the policy unconstitutional and demanding the military open up the remaining 238,000 positions still inaccessible to them.
"Biology is not destiny anymore, but we are lagging behind in our notions," said Kolankiewicz.
But opponents of lifting the combat ban cite many reasons for maintaining the status quo. Among them, that women would be a distraction to men, whose instinct is to protect the females and that females are not emotionally prepared for the stresses of war.
"I just don't think women should be subject to that," said Schwendeman, who added that he never even imagined women would hold guns, let alone participate in combat.
Many, including women, share Schwendeman's opinion, but others have the opposite viewpoint.
"I don't buy into this that women aren't emotionally prepared to do things like this. I know when I was in the military, instructors would often say that women, we thought through things a bit better," recalled Mowrer.
And though she was not called to serve in Afghanistan, Jenkins said she would have been ready to go.
"I wouldn't have minded. If they said 'We need you over there,' I would have gone."