My alarm clock is set to our local NPR station, so when it goes off each morning I am usually awoken to the latest news. Often the reporters are right in the middle of a story, so it can take a few seconds for my brain to register what is happening. Last week, I woke up in the middle of a conversation about women in combat. I wasn't exactly surprised to hear the story, as I knew it was coming. The Pentagon had lifted a longtime ban on women serving in front-line combat positions. Notice the wording here--the military is not "allowing" women to be in combat, they are no longer engaging in a policy which intentionally discriminates based on gender.
But we will get back to that.
As I laid in bed listening to the news, various individuals were being interviewed about their feelings regarding the change in policy. One woman was a member of the military and explained that she had already been in combat. This change in policy meant that she could now be recognized for the service to her country and have new opportunities for promotion and protection (as she noted, most combat gear is not made for women's bodies). But not everyone (or even all women) agree with the new policy. Some people have voiced concerns about whether women can meet the physical demands of being in combat or whether their presence will disturb the old boys club--er, I mean the "camaraderie" necessary for an efficient military. During the radio broadcast a military wife was asked what she thought about women being in combat and her response was...."what will they do if it is their "time of the month" and they are on the frontlines?"
At this point I sighed and decided to get out of bed. Is this really where we are as a nation? Despite the many wonderful gains we have made toward gender equality (I certainly have more opportunities available to me than my mother or grandmother ever had) we still seem pretty stuck. Women make 77% of what men make (based on 2010 national data), we have yet to have a female president (Hillary Clinton 2016?) and now we are arguing about whether women should be in combat because they menstruate. Any woman who has every been asked if it is her "time of the month" when she voiced a criticism or stood up for herself can understand my frustration with this argument.
I have some mixed feelings about women in combat, but mostly because I am opposed to anyone being in combat. I protested the war in Iraq and have had many arguments with loved ones about problems with the military. I am also incredibly concerned with the amount of sexual violence that women in the military experience. And while policies that reflect a belief that women are equal human beings are part of the long term solution to the violence; I think we need some immediate measures to protect women today.
Have I mentioned how much I love Parks and Recreation? Frankly I think Amy Poehler is a genius and this show is one of the funniest and wittiest shows on television (thanks, Aliya!). In a recent episode called "Women in Garbage" Poehler's character (Leslie Knope) expresses concern about gender inequality in the local government and puts together a working group to come up with solutions. Knope accepts a challenge to see if women "have what it takes" to be garbage collectors. Throughout the episode, Knope is faced with sabatoge, is asked to serve men their coffee, is told that women are not as "tough" as men, and even discovers that the other men on city council are keeping a diary of her menstrual cycles so they can decide when to "take her seriously." The parallels to the current debates about women in combat are uncanny and, frankly, disturbing. But they bring to the forefront the issues at hand; how our stereotypes about men and women perpetuate gender inequality. And this is not just bad for women--it is bad for men as well.
The arguments currently being made about why women shouldn't be allowed in combat reflect two big problems in our society. One is the belief that women are not equal to men--they are not as physically or emotionally strong as men and therefore are not "cut out" to be in the military. The other is that men are more disposable than women--that our society can not handle the idea of women being in combat and men would risk their lives and "the mission" to save a female soldier. (Check out one female veteran's response to the new policy: http://hotair.com/archives/2013/01/27/some-advice-on-women-in-combat-from-a-female-veteran/).
It is incredible that our society manages to hold these two seemingly opposing stereotypes simultaneously (what social psychologists would call hostile and benevolent sexism). The idea that men and women are so fundamentally different encourages our society to allow institutional discrimination (including the policy to ban women from combat) and make sweeping generalizations that limit the lives of women and men. Women are restricted from leadership positions and not taken seriously, and men are expected to be physically strong and emotionally resilient, even in the face of brutal war. The assumptions that women are not able to handle combat implies that men are; which completely ignores the reality that so many of our soldiers return from combat with PTSD and other emotional and physical injuries. Instead of arguing about what women will do if they have their period while on the front lines, maybe we should be arguing about whether we should even BE on the front lines. Rather than worrying about how women will feel if they have to pee in front of other soldiers (and whether male soldiers want to see this), we should be worrying about soldier suicides. According to the Department of the Army, 303 soldiers committed suicide in 2012, far outnumbering the deaths due to combat. Maybe the issue is not that women are not cut out for war. Maybe human beings are not cut out for war.
It is time to move forward. It is time to stop dividing ourselves into women vs. men. It is time to start solving our society's problems (be they collecting garbage or managing differences with other nations) as people--being open to the talent, ideas and hard work of all human beings.
May all our military members come home safely and come home soon.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.