Standing Up for Others: The Status of Women in the Military Impacts Us All

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The military can be viewed as a microcosm of American society, so their treatment of women is important. The recent lifting of the ban on women serving in combat highlights how smoothly things can change, but also just how far we have to go.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently announced that the Pentagon has finally lifted the ban on women serving in combat positions. The ban’s removal overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Such a move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs. This change may have taken some people by surprise, but for many it was a long time coming.

I find it interesting that the Joint Chiefs took this long to open up combat to women. After all, women have technically been serving in combat for years now and, most assuredly, they have been dying in wars for as long as armed conflict has been around. And this question of whether women should serve in combat roles is not new. I should know because, as a newly minted college graduate, my first professional job was as a research analyst for the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.

For me, it was a dream job. Not only was it somewhat glamorous (I got to travel quite a bit, interact in the world of politics, and meet many well-known people), but it was also quite educational. I learned a lot about politics, the military, government, the media, and the nature of prejudice but, most of all, I learned about women in the military. Women comprise approximately 15% of active duty personnel but you rarely hear from them. That’s too bad because, for the most part, they are amazing. They do challenging jobs under tough conditions, and they have forged a path that was and is fraught with difficulties. And they are often very misunderstood.

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Over the last week, I have read a lot of praise for and numerous complaints about this decision (and of course the negative comments get the most publicity), but what has struck me the most is how much people truly do not know about women who serve. Moreover, many people do not seem to understand how much the military is a microcosm of our culture and, thus, have not learned the lessons that having women in the military teaches us. So, let’s take some of the pertinent arguments against having women in the military in general and in combat positions in particular and see what should be the lesson for society.

One of the biggest complaints about women in the military is that equality should not mean forcing women to emulate the worst aspects of men. These people believe that women are by nature pacifistic and gentle and should not be forced to become aggressive and dominating. Clearly they’ve never gone shopping on Black Friday or watched the movie Mean Girls. Or read the myriad social psychological studies showing that women and men are more alike than different.

Lesson for society:
Categorizing women and men as unequivocally different is inaccurate, so we should just let people be who they are, regardless of their sex or gender.

Another criticism has been that women may not have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs. This is a valid concern but the answer seems simple enough: put forward the vital qualifications for the job and let whoever meets them compete for the position. Sounds reasonable, right? However, the big problems here (and in the larger culture) are in determining who gets to set the qualifications, and deciding how often to update them. Some employers use history or even personal preference in determining criteria for jobs and, as such, may inaccurately represent what is needed. When that happens, groups of people can be excluded from consideration, thereby decreasing your pool of talent. Moreover, the world is changing quickly, so job qualifications should too. The military is a perfect example of this as the modern battlefield has changed significantly (e.g., the “combat zone” is hard to delineate) and the same idea holds true for other businesses as well. And there is another rub. If you do not allow people to try things, you stifle innovation. For example, one group of female soldiers told the Commission about the time they realized that they did not have the strength necessary to move a piece of equipment. Instead of trying to move it by physical strength (like the men did), they created a system of levers and pulleys to do the job. Their idea was so successful that the military decided to use their system in going forward and, just like that, the qualifications of the job changed. I’ll also never forget a young female soldier who said that, when push came to shove, she was the “best man for the job” and her colleagues agreed.

Lesson for society:
Focus on what is truly needed for the job, not on who is filling it. Learn to be flexible so that good ideas can rise to the top.

Yet another bone of contention has been around the question of whether the presence of women might hurt unit cohesion. This is a significant concern because unit cohesion — the feeling of togetherness — is often the reason behind the motivation to continue, even during the chaos of war. Consequently, if women soldiers disrupt this, it would be detrimental to military effectiveness. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Soldiers in integrated units (units containing both women and men) testified to the Commission that they learned to like and trust their female colleagues. From a social psychological standpoint, this makes sense. When people from opposite groups work together on a common goal, their differences often subside and they become unified.

Lesson for society:
Differing groups of people can work together as long as they have a common goal and are given chances to bond.

Finally, the naysayers fall back upon the poor treatment of women as a reason not to allow them to further integrate into the military. There also have been suggestions that the public would not tolerate large numbers of women being killed in war. I lump these two together because they’re basically the same sentiment: Americans like to believe that our culture values women and that we are and should be protected. Hogwash! The death of female military personnel has barely made a splash in the media, and we basically shrug at the number of women killed by domestic violence or hurt by rape. The military has integrated women into its ranks, but has done little to make them feel welcome. Female military personnel endure sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape at much higher rates than the general public, and they receive very little support or justice from the military at large. Many of them get the picture that the military believes that “boys will be boys” and women serve at their own risk. This is not at all unlike what the larger culture believes, since women suffer a number of abuses that are shrugged off by the general public.

Lesson for society:
If we truly value women, then we will work harder to ensure women’s safety and just treatment. That means working with men to curb their violence, rather than requiring women to defend ourselves.

The ban on women in the military serving in combat positions should have been lifted long ago. The fact that it wasn’t says more about the military leadership and our cultural values than it does about the abilities of female military personnel. Not only have women in the military had to stand up for themselves and demand better treatment, but, by their very service, they’ve stood up for others as well. It is well past time that kind of leadership and persistence was rewarded. And their example may improve the status of women in the larger society as well. If nothing else though, at least the insult that used to inspire dread — “your mama wears combat boots” — can now be met with pride.

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