The Marines finally have a female infantry officer, but now comes the hard part

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Story highlights

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: The Marines' all-male culture presents a challenge for females
  • These women are more than capable but the culture is a deterrent, she writes

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)History has been made. The United States Marine Corps now counts a woman infantry officer among its ranks.

The lieutenant graduated Monday from the brutal, 13-week Infantry Officer Course (IOC). This tests physical ability and mental strength and is frequently said to be even more grueling -- see this analysis -- than Army Ranger School, which opened to women in early 2015. Her graduation comes more than a year after all combat roles in the United States military opened to women.
Now comes the hard part: being part of the evolution of a culture that, women serving in the Marines say, must adapt to the era if it is to get the most of America's talent.
    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
    The Marines have a storied tradition to draw upon -- one of which they are rightfully proud -- and now their leadership faces the challenge of showing that diversity can make the Marine Corps greater, not weaker. Women will add to the rich history of the Marine Corps, not serve as the source of its downfall.
    It will not be easy, but it is critical for the Marines to continue to be the embodiment of what it means to "adapt and overcome" and be this nation's "force in readiness." An America that is facing ongoing wars, nuclear threats and the scourge of terrorism needs the strongest Marine Corps possible.
    The new infantry officer, whose name has not been made public, is now officially qualified to lead a Marine Corps rifle platoon in war. She has proven she can hike close to 10 miles carrying more than 150 pounds, meet mental tests and bear the exhaustion and deprivations that are part of a demanding course that usually washes out a quarter of those who attempt it.
    I spoke with female Marines who agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity.
    One of them described the new infantry officer as a "humble" Marine known for always being "willing to carry extra gear, always the first to volunteer," and a young person who dreamed of becoming an infantry officer "since she was young."
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    "I think it is great," said a second female Marine, who previously served as an instructor at The Basic School in Quantico.
    But she also explained that she's worried about what comes next for the lieutenant.
    "When you are a woman in the Marine Corps and you walk in the room, you have to prove you are there because you are worth something and not just filling a quota," the former instructor said.
    The Marine Corps was the only branch to seek -- unsuccessfully -- to exclude women from a limited number of combat roles when a 2013 policy started the process to open all combat jobs to women.
    Indeed, Marine Corps leadership went right to the issue of standards in a statement Monday, making clear that the female lieutenant received no special treatment -- a charge that was leveled at the first women who graduated in 2015 from Army Ranger School and vehemently denied by Army and Ranger School leadership.
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    "I am proud of this officer and those in her class who have earned the infantry officer" designation, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. "Marines expect and rightfully deserve competent and capable leaders, and these IOC graduates met every training requirement as they prepare for the next challenge of leading infantry Marines; ultimately, in combat."
    Both of the female Marines whom I spoke with said that just one woman entering the infantry won't make the difference in culture, nor will the very welcomed words from Neller.
    The real difference will be made at the ground level.
    "Where the rubber meets the road is at these battalions, it is with the senior enlisted and with these officers who have been there longer, and I don't know if the message is getting to them," said the female Marine who previously served as an instructor at the Basic School. "I think the message is getting lost."
    In part, the lieutenant's integration is a generational question, said this former instructor.
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    "The young lieutenants I taught had no issues with females serving in the infantry," she said. "It was the Marines who had been in longer and had been indoctrinated into a culture of misogyny that made emotional arguments against it."
    And the culture has been a challenge. Still continuing is an investigation into Marines United, the private Facebook group that posted "potentially hundreds of explicit photos" of current and former women in the Marine Corps as well as other service members. The scandal led Neller to say, during congressional testimony last March, "to the men in our Corps ... I need you to ask yourself, how much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?"
    Neller asked, "What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines?"
    Today, six months later, the Marines now have a woman infantry officer. And leadership is working to set the tone.
    "Now you're going to go out there to the operating forces and we're going to give you responsibility for a platoon of infantry Marines and do your very best to lead them," Neller said to the graduating class. "Be men and women of virtue and character and teach them the skills and techniques they need to locate, close with and destroy the enemy. That's what this is all about. I'm proud of all of you."

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    The women I spoke with joined Neller in wishing the new infantry officer all the best and -- despite their concerns -- hoped that her graduation would be just the start of women entering the infantry.
    I "know females who could have made it through IOC but chose not to because of the culture," said the former instructor. She said she and other Marines hope that will change in the future, not just for the sake of the Marine Corps but also for the success of its newest infantry officer. "If she remains one of one, it is going to be difficult."
    America will benefit as more qualified women officers come to the Marine Corps infantry. The country needs more leaders ready to serve and who are focused on adapting and evolving. And their gender is secondary to their ability.