Because of the local cultures, female troops have proved indispensible in Iraq and Afghanistan. Norms there make it impossible for male troops to frisk women—or even to converse at length with them. So commanders in Anbar province set up “Lionesses,” small teams of female Marines who search women or question them about militants in their midst. An even larger effort is under way in Afghanistan, where female Cultural Support Teams operate alongside the Rangers and Special Forces to tap local women for usable intelligence. Two teams, 62 women in total, deployed to Afghanistan early this year; a third starts training soon; the Pentagon hopes to have roughly two dozen of the teams operating by 2016. “We’re seeing the most significant changes since the opening of combat aviation and combat ships to women in the early 1990s,” said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who runs the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute.

That expanding role has attracted far less attention than the reversal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but it will have a far greater impact on the future of the armed forces. Gay troops are thought to account for less than 10 percent of the military. Women account for at least 15 percent of the active-duty force and a higher proportion of Reserve and National Guard units; military demographers believe that women will account for at least 25 percent of the overall military within the next decade. Women also enjoy increasing prominence throughout the armed forces: The Army named its first female four-star general this year, and a female general commands the Marine Corps training base at South Carolina’s Parris Island. Female generals and admirals hold an array of senior posts in the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard.