Women in Combat: Honoring the Androgynous in Human Nature

U.S. Marine Corps soldier

U.S. Marine Corps soldier

Hearing that the U.S. military is finally going to allow women in combat is something akin to hearing that the Berlin Wall came down.  Something that had seemed so fixed and immovable is all of a sudden just…not…there.

The military led the way in racial integration back in the 1970s, and it is finally showing its willingness to get with the times and become a leader on gender equality as well.

That’s good!

So why don’t I feel like celebrating?

It’s true that women were already on the frontlines, doing dangerous work without the training or the equipment, and, importantly, without earning the credit.

And it’s no secret that the quickest way to advance in the military is to be recognized as a brilliant combat veteran.

Women who never officially saw combat were always held back at promotion time.

So in that regard, this is going to be very positive change that will help put many more fine women soldiers into the promotion pipeline.

In terms of wanting to do everything possible to generally increase women’s equality of opportunity and compensation, the broad example of the military, with its huge payroll, will make a difference.

So why am I feeling ambivalent?

I guess this just feels like one more example of women joining the male-dominated status quo and living up to patriarchal models and expectations, rather than women being able to bring our own different-but-equal perspectives to bear on the playing field.

Does “equality” mean that women have to conform to the social structures into which we were born and bred, which have always been, at least as far as any of us can remember, male-dominated?

This question has been the subject of extensive, impassioned debate among feminists over the past 20 years or so, ever since I entered the fray in the late 1980s.

Are women “essentially” different from men, or are we all humans, the same inside, just with different bodily accessories?

It is dangerous, assert many feminists, to argue that there is something essentially different about men and women, especially if you want to argue that men are essentially more aggressive and competitive, while women are essentially more nurturing and collaborative.

To assert this puts us just one step away from saying that women make better teachers and nurses and mothers, while men make better soldiers and stockbrokers and lawyers.

No feminist would want to say that, at least not while we live in a patriarchal society that puts a much greater value on soldiers, stockbrokers and lawyers than on people in the caretaking, nurturing professions.

Having pondered this long and hard over many years, I am convinced that gender identity is not an either/or proposition, but rather a spectrum.

That is, we are not 100% women or 100% men, but have some of the characteristics of both, to differing degrees. Depending on our social context, we move ourselves along the spectrum, seeking approval and rewards.

We all have it in us to call on whichever side of our nature, the masculine or the feminine, is most needed in the moment.

Women can be socialized to become tough soldiers, just as men can be socialized to become tender, loving fathers.

It’s no accident that mama bears have the reputation of being the most fearsome creature on earth if their cubs are endangered; I know as a mother I have felt an incredible level of aggression rising in me when I’ve felt my little ones threatened.

Yes, women can fight.

We can kill.

We can take orders, and we can dish them out, too.

But I hope that by fully integrating the military, from top to bottom, we will begin to have a subtle effect on the culture.

I hope that just as women in the military are encouraged to cultivate their masculine sides, they may also begin to allow and encourage men to let their feminine sides show up for duty a little more often.

We are learning slowly that winning wars is not just about overwhelming force, shock and awe; it’s more importantly about winning hearts and minds, about making a lasting positive impact in a territory that we are forced to occupy militarily.

Without this crucial component to war-making, the peace will never last.

As someone who is deeply non-violent, I believe that the purpose of war should  always be to create the conditions for long-lasting and productive peace.

Women and men in military service who honor the full spectrum of their gendered natures, from masculine warrior to feminine peacemaker, will best be able to make this vision a reality.

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  1. Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn.

  2. I love the thoughts expressed in your last two lines. Perhaps a military influenced more significantly by women leaders would result in longer periods of peace.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, a female friend of mine (West Point grad, Bronze Star from Iraq) was just tapped for the lead position in the new office of Integrity in Athletics at Penn State. Your notion of a “full spectrum of their gendered natures” is a great way to characterize her strength, devotion, integrity, loyality, compassion, toughness, etc. PSU will be in good hands.

  3. I really really hate to admit this, but unfortunately one of the main reasons women are getting out is because of the “equality” in terms of regulations. Specifically in regards to parenthood. Women are expected to deploy anytime after their child is 1, and to be honest a lot don’t want to. The mother’s who do stay in the military and deploy are often called bad moms and as not putting their children first. It’s very very hard to put your family first when you are in the military, regardless of gender, but women in particular discharge from the military a lot because of this. Is this because they still have traditional family roles back home regardless of their military status, more than likely. Another explanation is that being in a military environment isn’t exactly always stable to raise a family, many service women are married or have children with other service women, they are required to be 100% back in physical standards 6 months after giving birth ( technically 6 months and 6 weeks). Regardless, just because the military makes these regulations to promote “equality” our society hasn’t made these sorts of strides to catch up yet. In other ways the military lacks seriously in terms of equality toward women, like the rape crisis, sexual harassment etc. From personally serving and working at commands (deployed and back in the states) women do add A LOT to the workplace, including encouraging men to “let their feminine sides” come out a little. But the military at the end of the day is just a job for most service members. They join and stay in to support their families, to gain professional experience, to make a difference, and for many to serve their country. And a lot of jobs in the military don’t every involve any killing, violence, or skills that are super masculine. There are dentists, journalist, cooks, mechanics, chaplains, legal services, and a lot of pencil pushers. Anyways, I’m glade that these conversations are coming up, and thank you for writing this. I also hope that we can put service women and their contributions in the spotlight. Maybe a news headline about servicewomen NOT involving rape or fighting for equality is in the near future! I can only hope.

  4. Ambivalence is right. Watch Janine di Giovanni on wars.

  5. Nothing much to celebrate here. What would be news would be hearing that humans were finally making progress in putting a halt to war (yeah, right, like that’s ever going to happen, even if women were in charge…).


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