In the last few years, the Pentagon has been a progressive force in aiding current civil rights movements, first with the 2010 overturn the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay troops, and now with last week’s the decision to allow women to fight in open combat. If approved by Congress in the coming year, the military’s step forward in gender equality ensures that both servicemen and servicewomen will be given opportunity to succeed among the ranks. This decision could continue to uproot traditional gender roles entrenched in Western society: that of the life-giving mother and the life-taking father. The movement towards universal military participation has the potential to become the catalyst for a much needed social paradigm shift.
Due to the continual militarization in American society, violent self-sacrifice in the name of American values is rewarded with full citizenship and respect. Conditional citizenship is at the heart of the present gender inequality. During the early years, women as Republican Mothers risked life to give birth to sons who could fight in wars for their country and girls who could also become Republican Mothers. It was this civic obligation of raising a child with a love of nation that put women on the same plane as their brave life-taking male compatriots.
However, in the last hundred years, childbirth has become a fairly safe procedure with the advent of effective pain medication and other medical advancements. Childbirth is no longer associated with a high incidence of maternal death. As a nation deep within an “Era of Choice”, birth control and abortion provide women with much needed power over their bodies and lives. However, these medical advancements have proven to be a double-edged sword: women are no longer asked to risk their lives, while each year 18- 25 year old males must register with the Selective Service in order to be readily selected in the event of a draft.
Furthermore, up until last week, even willing female soldiers were barred from open combat because of the masculine assumptions of physical and psychological differences that rest on the life-giver and life-taker dichotomy. However, women have proven in the past that they are as capable in life-threatening situations as men.
The 2008 film, Lioness, documented the secrecy surrounding female involvement in open combat and the uncertainty these women face upon return home as the first female combat veterans. “Team Lioness” is the name of the group of under-trained female solder-mechanics, supply clerks, and engineers who were ordered to fight alongside the Marines in some of the most dangerous counterinsurgency battles in Iraq.
Similar stories from female soldiers continue to surface. The rise of insurgency in the Iraq War has obliterated the concrete idea of the “front lines”, while women in support units diffuse tensions between soldiers and civilians. In many instances, women must be prepared to fire weapons in order to protect themselves, their fellow soldiers, and civilians.
Lioness director Meg McLagan said, “[t]his war changed the face of America’s combat warrior; it is no longer male.” However, because female involvement in open combat is illegal under the Pentagon’s 1994 combat exclusivity policy, these women have been denied complete recognition for their bravery and the physical and psychological distress precipitated by scenes of war.
Therefore, supporters of the women’s military movement are applauding the 2013 decision for several reasons. First, women will be given the proper combat training that was absent in the past, preparing women fully in the event of surprise attacks. Gender equality in training will refute any assumptions of female fragility and weakness.
Second, women who have fought in the past will be recognized and awarded. In November, the ACLU teamed up with the Service Women’s Action Network in a lawsuit to help recognize plaintiff Major Mary Jennings Hegar’s combat participation. Hegar was wounded in Afghanistan but was denied a combat leadership position because the Pentagon would not acknowledge her combat experience.
Full recognition of Hegar’s involvement provides both men and women with an equal opportunity to succeed within the military. Hegar’s involvement serves to be crucial for much-deserved career advancement, and the Pentagon’s failure to recognize her achievements violates women’s right to equal opportunities. Rewarding Hegar formally could not only change binary gender dynamic in the military, but also diminish long-standing images of women as the weaker, and solely life-giving gender. This is a chance for the military to push masculine tradition aside and set women up as successful, strong soldiers, who are as well trained and capable as their male counterparts.
Although this change was met with much bipartisan approval, the conservative Christian group Family Research Council and General Jerry Boykin believe that letting women into combat situations, “is part of another social experiment, in which living conditions are primal in many situations with not privacy for personal hygiene or normal function.”
This comment alone exemplifies sexist standards that have created the gender hierarchy within the military and other parts of society. The assumption that women cannot live without first-world comforts is insulting. Perhaps the Family Research Council and General Boykin need to remember a person’s competence and character rests on expertise and personal fortitude, not gender.
Worldwide, longstanding gender equality in the military coincides with heightened social equality. Northern Europe, including Scandinavia and the Baltic Nations, has been known for a lack of workplace bias, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report. Iceland, Finland, and Norway top the podium for gender equality among 135 countries. On the other hand, United States comes in at 22nd place in political empowerment, education and economic participation, and health, losing three places since 2010. The existing gender gap in America may be on its way out with the introduction of the female combat fighter. With bipartisan support and a little help from Congress, America could retire an age of misogyny and move towards increased opportunities for the servicewomen who risk their lives for a country that has failed to recognize their bravery for too long.
But, before the celebration starts, complete gender equality in the military may rest entirely on draft registration. Because women are not required to register for the draft, the common complaint is that women get all the benefits without any sacrifice, while men endure compulsory military service. The CIA World Factbook reports that Norwegian men and women share service obligation, while Sweden has completely abolished conscripted military service. In order to establish further gender equality it is time for the United States to either mandate universal draft registration or rescind the draft completely.