Correction: Earlier versions of this column incorrectly said that Paula Broadwell, who attempted to gain admission to the Army’s Ranger School, graduated first in her class at West Point. She was top-ranked in physical fitness but not overall. This version has been updated.

On May 3, two days after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces, Stephen Colbert celebrated the terrorist’s assassination as only a true pop culture patriot could.

“I want to personally congratulate the guys who got ’er done: SEAL Team 6!” Colbert brayed, jabbing the air with his fingers for emphasis. “Their identities are classified, so I’m just gonna guess it’s Rambo, John McClane, Master Chief, the Batman, Vin Diesel, Lara Croft and, let’s say, Kung Fu Panda.”

A few quibbles: “The Batman” is a moniker usually uttered by the superhero’s enemies, not his allies. Most important, Lara Croft wouldn’t be allowed to participate. She is, after all, a woman.

The policy against women assigned to ground combat units has been in effect since the beginning of the U.S. military. (Regulations forbidding women to serve as crew members of planes and ships engaged in combat weren’t even lifted until the mid-’90s.) But as circumstances change — asymmetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; higher numbers, expanding opportunities and growing visibility of women in uniform — it’s becoming increasingly clear that the next blow against the military’s bulletproof glass ceiling will be directed against the ban on women in Special Forces.

This point was underscored almost three weeks ago when, in the middle of the night, a 79-person team made up of CIA operatives, intelligence experts and aforementioned Special Forces soldiers executed a successful raid on bin Laden’s suburban Pakistani hideout. Although President Obama, CIA Director Leon Panetta and the roughly two dozen Navy SEALs who participated in the raid have received most of the adulation, there was most likely a significant female element to the operation.

“I can guarantee you that women were involved,” says Kirsten Holmstedt, author of “Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq.” Paula Broadwell, an Army reservist with experience in special ops and author of an upcoming biography on her mentor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, agrees: “Most likely they weren’t the helo pilots, and they definitely weren’t the SEALs, but they were probably involved in the planning, in CIA operations on the ground and other important roles.”

Last year, a pilot program of “cultural support teams” was instituted to begin integrating women into higher-risk support roles among special ops forces in Afghanistan. The Pentagon refuses to comment on what roles, if any, women might have played in the Abbottabad raid.

Rules and reasons

For years, female service members — and the Defense Department itself — have been able to get around the prohibition against women in combat. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it is taboo for Muslim women to interact closely with adult males outside their family, and thus American women have acted as intermediaries for their male counterparts. Female service members are also overseeing checkpoints, interacting with members of local communities and gathering intelligence. There are also all-female teams, sometimes called “lioness teams” or “forward engagement teams,” who pair up with infantry and, if circumstances demand, bust out the big guns.

But all is not fair in war. The justifications used to keep women out of combat and special ops units are the same paternalistic, discriminatory excuses used in favor of upholding racial segregation in the military and, more recently, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays and lesbians. In short, they have little to do with individual capability and reveal far more about ingrained ideas and misconceptions regarding psychology, sexuality and physiology.

Naysayers such as Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness often bring up the concept of unit cohesion. Women, it’s said, would threaten the military’s very special fraternity and detract from a unit’s preparedness: Consensual sex would be both a temptation and a distraction, and men would be more likely to put themselves at risk to serve (or save) a female colleague. Nancy Duff Campbell, of the National Women’s Law Center, says this isn’t true. Campbell helped with a 2010 report, commissioned by the Pentagon, that advocates an end to all women-in-combat restrictions because there “isn’t any evidence,” in her words, that men are trying to protect their fellow female service members more than their male peers. “Everybody is trying to protect everybody else.”

Society’s supposed squeamishness with the idea of women coming home in body bags is another reason given. But the reality doesn’t support that. Women have been engaged in combat (and have suffered casualties) in other countries for decades, including Germany, Sweden, France and New Zealand. And as Broadwell points out, American women have been seriously injured and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan — more than a hundred fatalities during the last decade. “A dead soldier is a dead soldier,” she says. “It’s a tragedy whenever the military loses someone. But that’s a poor excuse for limiting my opportunities.”

More compelling is the threat of sexual assault. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. armed forces received more than 3,100 reports of assault and rape of service members by other service members in 2010; only 25 percent of those occurred in a combat zone. And those are just the ones we know about. The department estimates that a staggering 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults go unreported because of fear of ostracism and career sabotage. But this is a problem that the military leadership need to deal with. “Again, it comes back to, why are you punishing me?” says Broadwell. “The problem with assault in the military is a legitimate one, but I don’t think it’s a reason to preclude an opportunity for women in special ops.”

Lastly, and perhaps most convincingly, there are the physical requirements. Special ops forces such as those in the SEAL program have to pass a screening test and then go through the notoriously difficult, six-month-long BUD/S (which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training that has a staggeringly high attrition rate even among males. (About 80 percent of applicants drop out before training is completed.) But standards of physical fitness in women are rising rapidly. Joseph Collins, a former Army colonel and professor of national security strategy at the National War College, says that while teaching at West Point, although he and his fellow instructors could identify differences between men and women on physical tests, they were surprised by how quickly female athletic performance increased over time.

“Men do sort of have an absolute advantage over women in, say, upper-body strength, but the extent to which that really makes sense as an issue, I don’t know,” he says. “My sense is that there are some women who would love to challenge the forces and see if they could get through. And I know some who are so fit that they probably could.”

“The physical requirements are extreme,” concedes Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and the director of the Women in the Military project of the Women’s Research and Education Institute. “But I know some women who could probably meet them, some very strong and fit women. Remember, we used to think women couldn’t go into space.”

Manning and Collins make a point of emphasizing that, if and when women are allowed to undergo BUD/S training, they’ll have to be held to the same physical standards as their male counterparts. Otherwise, Manning says dryly, “it would just be the ladies’ auxiliary.”

A matter of time

Of course, one woman has made it through BUD/S: “G.I. Jane’s” Demi Moore. The 1997 film, directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Thelma & Louise”), chronicles the story of a fictional Navy officer named Jordan O’Neil, who is handpicked by an ambitious Texas senator to undergo SEAL training as a sort of test case. (In true Hollywood fashion, Jordan stumbles a bit along the way but eventually triumphs over both the physical challenges and her male peers’ antagonistic posturing.)

“I’ll admit that Ridley and Demi and I engaged in a bit of wish fulfillment when we made the movie,” says one of the film’s screenwriters, David Twohy. “Did we really think it was 100 percent feasible (and desirable) that women serve as Navy SEALs? Probably not. But we did think the time had come for a dramatic discussion of the issue, and we thought it because history was clearly showing us the way.”

Although there’s no record of a woman ever challenging her exclusion from special ops training, it’s probably only a matter of time before that happens. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission released a recommendation that the Pentagon open up all military specialties to both genders. And last September, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience of students at Duke University that he expects the ban on women in special ops forces will be lifted at some unspecified point in the future. (The Navy’s ban on women serving on submarines was rescinded in April 2010; earlier this month, the first female officers selected for submarine duty reported to a Navy base in Groton, Conn.)

The question is: When will the Pentagon lead the way? What’s more likely, says Brenda Feigen, an attorney, film producer (1990’s “Navy Seals”) and longtime feminist activist, is that the ban on women in combat and special ops forces will be overturned by the courts. “I just don’t see the Navy or Air Force or the Army willingly letting this happen,” she says. “The challenge is for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll be qualified to serve as a SEAL if you agree to train me.’ ” (In the late 1970s, a lawsuit was filed by active-duty Navy women to open noncombatant ships to females; they won.)

“I don’t see this changing in the near future,” says Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Most of the men on the committee start out with the idea that women are just weaker. They just think, ‘What if something like Black Hawk Down happens? Then our women will be subjected to terrible things.’ Well, women are soldiers and are being subjected to terrible things today.” Adds Broadwell, who graduated in the top of her West Point class in physical fitness and attempted to gain admission to the Army’s Ranger School to “make a point”: “There’s an institutional obstacle. [The department is] probably happy to have the inertia because this will be a painful process, and there’ll be a national argument.”

Sanchez, who introduced a bill that would end the ban on women in combat, is quick to note that progress has already been made. When she began serving on the Armed Services Committee in the mid-’90s, she explains, many of the arguments among policymakers revolved around getting rid of women in the military altogether. And her interest in opening up all areas of the military to women is less about ideological point-scoring than ensuring that women are able to reach their full career potential. “From a promotion standpoint, women don’t stand a chance against guys who are able to write on their resumes that they were in combat,” she says. “Fifty-two percent of the U.S. population is female, so if that’s the case, then why would we shut them out from the very beginning?”

“It’s a very old story,” adds Collins, the former colonel, who points out that women have been engaging in skirmishes since World War II, when even nurses saw action. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a chapter that’s closed; women have proved themselves in combat.”

Seizing the opportunity

Now it’s time for the men to step up — namely, the generals, congressmen and the next defense secretary (President Obama has nominated Panetta to succeed Gates). As Broadwell emphasizes, it’s the older military leadership, not the combat units themselves — “the special ops community is really forward-leaning on this,” she says — who are standing in the way.

Will it take five years? Twenty? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. But there’s a very real prospect that a generation of young women inspired by the SEALs’ latest success will one day enjoy the opportunity to be them; it could be one of those heady moments in history when the recent past and advancing future are in almost equal focus.

Make no mistake: Those young women are out there.

“If there’s a group of women who can show they can pass the screening and want to be subjected to that type of lifestyle, then that’s their right as an American citizen,” concedes Howard Wasdin, a former Team 6 member and author of “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper.” “The Christian side of me would say that being that type of warrior is best suited to a man.”

He pauses.

“But you catch me in the unique position of having an 18-year-old daughter. I would say she deserves every opportunity.”