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Could Obama choose a woman as next Defense secretary? One name tops list.

Michele Flournoy, viewed as a front-runner to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, could affect key issues facing women in the military, from sexual assault to serving on the front lines of combat.

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Then-Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2010.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File

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As speculation heats up about who will replace Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel now that he has announced his resignation, the front-runner could very well be the first woman ever to hold the job.

Michele Flournoy is one of the top names being floated as the next secretary of Defense, which has policy analysts wondering how she could change Pentagon policy as it grapples with a number of issues that impact women, from sexual assault in the military to allowing women to serve as infantry soldiers on the front lines of combat.

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Other names cropping up in Washington policy circles include Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island (though some point out that, having just won Senate reelection, he might be reluctant to take a two-year job) and Ashton Carter, who served as deputy secretary of Defense from 2011 to '13.

Though not a household name, Ms. Flournoy is well-known and widely respected in foreign and defense policy circles. She also holds the distinction of having been the highest-ranking woman yet to serve in the Pentagon, as the undersecretary of Defense for policy, which made her the No. 3 official in the building, effectively outranking all of the US military’s combatant commanders.

As a result, Flournoy was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s point person on all matters of policy, including Iraq, Afghanistan, defense budget wrangling, and even the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Mr. Gates writes in his memoir that he “quickly developed a very high respect for Flournoy,” when they began working together.

It was Flournoy who helped to persuade Mr. Gates to support the involvement of Special Operations Forces in the bin Laden raid. (Gates says that he initially wanted to hit the compound with a drone instead.)

But after Flournoy pleaded the case, along with the Pentagon’s intelligence policy chief Michael Vickers, Gates changed his mind. “There were no two people whose judgment I trusted more,” he writes.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta describes Flournoy as one of the “most critical advisers I had during my time as secretary,” adding in his own memoir that she was “at the core of the Pentagon’s mission.”

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The selection of a woman to be America’s next Pentagon chief is an exciting prospect for organizations that advocate for women’s rights in the military.

“She’s eminently qualified, by all accounts, and incredibly well-respected in the defense community. I think she’d be a formidable secretary,” says Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network.

“This would be a huge step forward, and I think it would send a very strong message to the Defense Department and to both allies and enemies abroad that women are to be taken seriously.”

That said, it’s not a given that a woman at the helm of the Department of Defense would necessarily change Pentagon policy towards women, says Ms. Bhagwati, who served as a Marine.

“We can’t assume that because she is a woman that she has an ideological bent towards helping women,” she says, adding that she hopes any policy changes Flournoy might make that would impact women “would be because of her extensive policy experience, not her gender.” 

“I would hope that she would just look at the facts for women in combat, for reforming the military justice system to help victims of sexual assault,” Bhagwati says, “and then do it because it’s the right thing to do.”