Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Feminism In The Military

( Hat tip to Jill at Feministe )

I consider myself a feminist in the classic sense: I believe in equal rights for women, as well as equal pay and the freedom to determine one's own sexual choices. I also support women's equality in the military, and support the idea of allowing women the choice to enter combat for their country.

At the unit level, I also believe that women serve an important function: namely, that they provide a stabilizing influence in the enlisted ranks, and that any unit without a representative cross-section of females in its makeup is one that compromises its own unit readiness. I admit, I have no facts or figures to support my claims. I have only raw observations and experience. That being said, I've noticed that for all the noteworthy advances in Women's Rights in the military, "feminism" as a concept seems to barely exist in the military. In some cases, it's even stifled. I consider this a problem, and am concerned on behalf of the many female soldiers I've been lucky enough to serve with.

I serve in an Engineer unit listed as "combat support." That is to say, we are a unit likely to experience hostile fire in future deployments, though not likely to be deployed in a forward offensive role. As such, women are permitted to serve in our unit, and perform all the same duties as men. However, in my time with this unit, I've also observed a climate of self-imposed insularity enforced by my fellow males. It's a phenomenon that seems to be hardly unique to the Army, but if one were to examine my platoon in particular, one might find some disturbing trends.

It starts off with composition: out of nearly fifty individuals, only one is female. She's a single mother, and since the last deployment she has been relegated to a position in our Headquarters section (read: desk job). There have been more, but in the past six months, while new women have transferred into the unit, each has been shuffled off to the next platoon. Meanwhile, the atmosphere within the platoon is jocular and competitive. Misogynistic jokes and homoerotic roughhousing permeate the air, leading inevitably to assaults and drinking offenses off-duty, as well as safety violations and potentially fatal accidents while on-duty.

I didn't think much of it, until last November, while attending a neighbor's Thanksgiving dinner. I ended up conversing with another soldier in my section, Colton, a young husband and father approximately my age. We picked at our mashed potatoes and smoked cigarettes in back of the kitchen, discussing events at work.



"So," I remember him saying, "we're getting, like, 20 new people, 'tween now and February." He pushed away his paper plate, sticking another Marlboro between his lips.

"Yeah?"I looked up, abandoning my own efforts to finish. He nodded, and hunching down over his lighter, took a drag and exhaled.

"Yeah," he went on. "Least five females, didn't count males. Prolly wearing ACU's."

It's at this point that I went to light up for myself. "Think any'll come to First?"

He shrugged. "Prolly not."

This came as perplexing to me, both his mention of the females and his response. "Why do you say that?"

He shook his head, frowning and blowing out another plume of smoke. "Why do you think? How many females we got in our platoon?"

"Ramos and West. Why?"

Colton fixed me with a wry look of scorn. He glanced back toward the living room, then turned again to me. He whispered.

"Look, dude, First doesn't want 'em. All they do is slow us down. Bring our PT scores down, make us fuckin' look bad."

I took a drag, shrugging him off. "How do you figure? Ramos got like a 290 on her last PT test."

"Yeah, and she's what? Forty?"

"Thirty-six," I corrected him. "And she only did 15 fewer push-ups than I did." I exhaled. One of the local wives walked through with dirty silverware. "Don't care who you are, man, at thirty-six? That makes you a stud."

Colton spent a few minutes staring out the window, dragging on his smoke. He shook his head.

"But come on, dude, you know it's not just that. She's always out flappin' on somethin'. Always mouthin' off to the NCOs, talkin' about how SHE'S gonna run things when SHE's sergeant'--"

"Yeah," I cut in, "so she needs to learn to shut the fuck up. Her and about a dozen other guys in our platoon. So what? Doesn't have anything to do with the fact she's a chick."

He gave a derisive grin. "You're tellin' me we're gonna be out on site when the mortars start coming in and she's not gonna get someone killed?"

I shrugged, flicking ash off my cigarette. "Dunno. But I think she deserves the chance to prove herself." I took another drag, and a long pause ensued. As I exhaled and fanned the steadily thickening haze, I looked back up at Colton.

"So you're saying that First isn't letting any new females into the platoons," I said. It wasn't a question.

"That's what I heard Sgt. Jennings say."

"To who? That's fuckin' illegal."

"He was talkin' about it up in the office. Long as he's acting platoon sergeant, I think."

"That's discrimination. That's IG shit right there. Someone calls that in, people'll lose rank."

Colton looked at me squarely.

"Like you're gonna call it in?"

I stuck my smoke back in my mouth. He had a point. I had already played the whistleblower card that month with the Sergeant Keyes thing. Too much civic awareness tends to be bad career-wise for a soldier. This from an unit whose NCOs once supposedly threatened punishment for witnesses in a rape investigation.

"Well, someone has to." I glanced out the window again. "Hopefully our new platoon sergeant will come in soon."

Colton nodded. "Hopefully. I'm startin' to hate gettin' up every morning."

"Yeah." I paused. "Look, all I'm saying is, I think women are a good thing for the platoon. Think about it. They're smarter, they're better at personal relations, they have a higher pain tolerance, they can lose more blood without passing out. They eat less. Hell, they're smaller. Think about that the next time you're crammed in back of a five-ton with somebody's weapon up your ass."

He nodded, raised his eyebrows. "Got a point."

I nodded back. "See? Plus, man, with girls around, guys aren't playing grabass when they should be watching their backs. Gimme a study on women and workplace safety, and I'll bet the number of accidents go down." Our cigarettes had become smoldering stubs at that point.

Colton went silent, staring into the dying cherry at the end of his fingertips. He ashed it out in his potatoes, then got up to throw away his plate.

"Maybe," he said, brushing past me.



Good things have happened for women in the Army. They now pilot attack helicopters, and annual sexual harassment courses have become a mandatory part of Army training. But the truth is, it's still almost expected of male soldiers to be misogynistic. Now, rather than discriminate against female soldiers openly, the norm is to silently exclude them from the fold. To make matters worse, women are still only expected to perform to a gender-normed standard of physical training, one which doesn't condition them effectively and puts them at higher risk of fitness injuries.

Good things have happened for women's rights in the Army, to be certain. But as long as we're continuing to use the word "female" as a disqualifier in front of the word "soldier," there can never be expected to be a real sense of equality for women in the service.

Because that's what feminism is supposed to be about, in my opinion: equality for everyone, simple and unvarnished. And on that front, there is still a very long way to go.

9 Comments:

Anonymous M said...

I followed your link from Feministe here, and stayed to read all of your posts. You are a tremendously gifted writer. I was shocked to get to the bottom of the page and realize that you are only 22.

There seems to be something about military service that shapes the world-view in a way that is hard for those of us who haven't served to understand. I recently started dating someone who spent many years in the Israeli army, and I feel like there are parts of him that I may never be able to connect with. I think what I'm trying to say is that I appreciate the very vivid pictures that you are painting in this blog.

Please keep writing. I'll definitely be back for more.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Lauren said...

What a badass post. Thanks for writing about this.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous ginmar said...

Female. Combat vet. OIF 2. 97E. I love the army. I love it. I'd be an unwed mother in a trailer park except for the army. Now I'm a trilingual world traveller with PTSD and the sort of chip on your shoulder you get from travelling to twenty different countries. The military made me more of a feminist than civilian life ever did, nad part of that was because I got used to being around guys who had a high expectation for me.

Don't sell us short. Don't generalize about us. We're not some group. We're all individuals.

4:46 AM  
Anonymous a feminist said...

You say "an [sic] unit whose NCOs once supposedly threatened punishment for witnesses in a rape investigation" - maybe you could elaborate on this for the uninformed? I've looked through your blog for a full explanation but there doesn't seem to be one. Maybe a blog entry for the future?

Anyway, found you via Feministe; just wanted to leave a small note to say that I think you've got a healthy attitude on this :) We need more guys like you!

10:04 PM  
Anonymous media_queen said...

You know, I've been trying to get many of my friends that are in the armed forces, both male and female, to talk about their perceptions of the women they soldier with, and they have yet to give me any sort of direct info or experiences that have influenced what they thought. This despite the fact that all of them attest to having strong feelings on the issue. Argh! So frustrating.

This is a problem for me because I consider myself strongly feminist, and I want to be fully informed about any and all feminist issues concerned here (especially "gender norming", which I tend to think creates more problems than it would solve, and is flawed by the ideal of inequality in the first place); but because I am not in the armed forces myself I have no experience to drawn upon for comparison. Basically, I'd just like to thank you for your two cents. Greater perspective is something I am eternally seeking, and in this case your post has been among the most helpful.

I wonder, by any chance do you know of specific other blogs, sites or books where people take on this issue in a mature, realistic manner?

9:47 AM  
Blogger E.A.P said...

I have a brother who's a field medic. He signed on at a fairly young age (19) and he's been for three years now. I've often worried that the subtle environmental influences you've mentioned would turn his heart away from his roots and give "female" a bad name. It is so good to know that you're there, standing up for women (and critical thinking, me thinks) in that environment. You give me hope.

6:39 PM  
Blogger annelynn said...

Wow. Great entry!

Thank you for sharing. Having grown up around military men.. I must say I find your tone very, very refreshing.

7:18 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

Tend to agree with you, re: What Feminism Is. That said, re: the physical requirements... I'm kinda curious... when you say that the "gender normed standard of physical training" doesn't condition women as well, what would you suggest in its place? That women perform to the men's standards, which are the ostensible norm? And if so... why?

We all know men and women are different physical builds, with different physical strengths and weaknesses. So why, if we're advocating a gender-neutral, truly *equal* military, would we not also revamp the physical requirements so that the tests play as much to female strengths as male? (I'm really asking, because I'm out here and you're in the military, and all the theory in academia is great but it's not a substitute for insider's view).

And all THAT said... Canada does allow women in combat positions now. I'll be interested to see how that plays out.

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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http://www.cafepress.com/sunflowerqueen

1:05 AM  

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