Soon after the Gulf War in 1991, a group of military women pressed Congress to allow female pilots to fly combat missions. But a Vietnam War hero in the Senate, John McCain, pushed back hard.
"The purpose of the military is first to defend this nation's vital security interests throughout the globe and only second to ensure equality," the Arizona Republican argued on the Senate floor, framing the issue in a way that infuriated feminists.
McCain lost that legislative battle, and women pilots started moving into combat roles in the mid-1990s. In the last five years in Iraq, women have flown hundreds of combat missions. And though they remain barred from ground combat units, women -- who make up about 15% of the military -- are playing a bigger fighting role than ever. About 100 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The drive to eliminate gender distinctions in the military appears to be entering a new phase, with debate likely to come to a head within a few years. The next president, whether presumptive GOP nominee McCain or a Democrat, almost certainly will face the question of women in combat.
Policymakers would need to confront societal taboos against putting women in jeopardy, including the risk of rape that captured female soldiers commonly face. They also would have to tackle such issues as whether women could be involuntarily assigned to the infantry or required to register for the draft.
Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- neither of whom has a track record on the issue -- declined to comment on their positions.
McCain's aides said only that he stood by his past positions, suggesting that he would resist pressures for change.
In the 1991 debate over women pilots, McCain took a traditionalist stance. "This nation has existed for over 215 years," McCain said. "At no time in the history of our nation have women been in combat roles."
He called the proposal "draconian" and noted that the nation's military chiefs opposed it. But he was dealt a resounding political defeat.
McCain's arguments lost out to demands for change by women officers -- many of whom were angry over revelations about the 1991 Tailhook sexual harassment scandal. In that case, dozens of Navy women complained of being groped or assaulted by drunken pilots at a Navy booster group's convention in Las Vegas.
McCain's long-standing opposition to women in combat has raised questions among his critics about his commitment to women's rights.
Women's groups say he has a weak legislative record on such issues as equal pay and workplace discrimination, and his support has lagged among female voters.
As a lawmaker, critics say, McCain sometimes has had strained relations with women in power. Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who spearheaded the effort to grant women the right to fly in combat, called McCain a product of a "guy culture."
"He has always had trouble dealing with women as equals," Schroeder said.
By his own account, McCain was shaped by traditional military values.
He was a young naval officer in the 1950s, when it was nearly unthinkable that the nation would send women into combat. As a pilot he was immersed in a macho subculture. And McCain grew up in a family with a military tradition extending back to the Revolutionary War.
McCain's views may have been influenced, too, by an acute sense of what a prisoner, man or woman, would face. He spent 5 1/2 years in captivity in a Hanoi prison camp, where he was tortured. He returned home in 1973 having missed the U.S. cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In an interview with Navy public relations officials after his release, McCain said women should never be allowed to enter combat. "Some of the people that might capture them can be pretty mean," he said.
Three decades later, female troops often find themselves serving in dangerous areas. In the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents' attacks have blurred the boundaries between combat and noncombat zones. Women are carrying rifles, shooting at the enemy and earning combat pay. Some have risen to senior command positions.
Meanwhile, troop shortages, and the widespread reluctance to reinstate a draft, have created pressure to open all military jobs to qualified women. "In the next two years, all the restrictions are going to be lifted," predicts Lawrence J. Korb, a defense analyst who was assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration.
The Air Force's most senior female fighter pilot, Col. Martha McSally, has even called for eliminating dress code and grooming distinctions.
"Women's hair should be at least cut extremely short upon entering basic training in all services," she wrote in a Duke University law journal last year. "Uniforms should be standardized, and skirts, high heels and pantyhose should be removed from the military uniform."
And advocates of women in combat have argued that concerns about servicewomen being captured, tortured and raped are misplaced.
"You have to ask, is torture worse for women than men?" said Sheila Widnall, Air Force secretary in the Clinton administration, now an engineering professor at MIT.
Yet many believe that the American public, like McCain, wants greater protection for military women than men.
"We would not want to put women in these land combat positions where the job is to deliberately kill people," said Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district has one of the heaviest concentrations of military personnel in the nation. The public is more offended, she said, by the prospect of women being tortured and sexually assaulted than of men being mistreated.
The experience of Jessica Lynch, the celebrated Army private who was taken prisoner early in the Iraq war, illustrates the risks. She eventually revealed in her book that she was brutally beaten and raped.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a Washington group that examines social issues in the military, said McCain's views were based on legitimate concerns about women's abilities to fight.
In an essay that also appeared in the Duke law school journal, Donnelly wrote that military women can't, on average, match the physical strength of military men. And the Pentagon is violating its own policies, she contended, by putting women in increasingly hazardous assignments that they do not want.
"Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive on the battlefield and to help their fellow soldiers," Donnelly said. "We as a civilized nation do not have to subject our women to these kinds of risks."