Women in the United States have long fought for the right to be included in many facets of society, from the right to vote to breaking into professions like the medical field and other traditionally all-male fields to getting females elected to major government offices.
But one of the most intriguing questions of integration has yet to be fully answered, to equally allow women to have the right, the honor, and the privilege of serving and defending their country as part of the United States Armed Forces.
Being in the military means prestige, honor, pride, and the sheer satisfaction that comes along with engaging what is considered one of the most valiant and traditionally revered professions on the face of the Earth.
There has always been and continues to be considerable debate in this country as to exactly what extent women should be allowed to serve their country, and what the effects and trade-offs of such integration might be. Sex scandals such as what happened at the Las Vegas’ Tailhook convention in 1991, where dozens of servicewomen were accosted and sexually molested by servicemen or the misconduct of former Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force’s first female B-52 bomber pilot, who faced court-martial in 1997 for military charges of adultery, have served to raise questions about military integration.
Can female and male military personnel be combined without the military losing some of its effectiveness? Can women be as good at being soldiers, sailors, naval aviators and fighter pilots as men? Should women be allowed in the line of fire and in direct combat? What role should sexual harassment and fraternization play in the combination of women into the military?
The real question, essentially, is whether or not women can serve in any military capacity at all. The issue the United States faces at present is to decide for itself whether or not women should be allowed in combat. That is, in every major war until World War II, thousands of women served in the military in traditional roles such as nurses, office staff, and the like. But as WWII broke out, sheer need, often the best equal opportunity employer, led to the creation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), the Coast Guard’s Semper Paratus: Always Ready (SPARs), which is their motto. The Marines and what was to later become the Air Force also began to accept women applicants. (Moskos 2).
In 1976, the three service academies; the United States Naval Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Military Academy all accepted their first class of women. While it was long debated whether women could compete and excel in the kind of environment that service academies are known for, at least the scholastic questions were answered when one of the female cadets at West Point was recently named the valedictorian of her graduating class.
In October 1997, the United States government dedicated a new memorial at the Arlington War Memorial in Arlington, VA. Named the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, it was the first national monument of its kind that, like Arlington itself, recognized those who fought and died in the protection of their country. Women have faced two fights when it came to the Armed Services, the first being the right and honor of serving their country and secondly on the battlefield itself. While women are now capable of being both enlisted personnel and officers in the military, a new question arises- should the role of women in the military finally be expanded to allow them to fight for their country in direct combat?
Many experts argue that when it comes to women in the military, there are over-riding reasons why the proverbial line must be drawn when it comes to making women part of America’s combat force. Among the most strenuous objections to the proposed integration comes from male officers and enlisted men themselves, whose primary fear is that this proposed change would have the potentially cataclysmic effect of significantly weakening the effectiveness of the U.S. military.
They say that this change could cause a decline in the cohesion and the effectiveness of the troops, elements that could quite literally mean the difference between life and death. Among the reasons commonly cited for their belief that the nation’s defenses would suffer are: a belief that women are simply physically incapable of the tasks and strains that come along with combat, the risk of sexual misconduct that accompanies the combination in close proximity of young men and young women for long periods of time, the incalculable expense of accommodating women onboard combat vessels, and the risks and consequences of pregnancy.
In a report to Congress entitled “Summary of Presidential Commission Findings and Record in Support of Alternative Views”, it was pointed out that the need for a superior military, which are the needs of the nation, must outweigh any civil rights claim no matter how noble or seemingly justified. “Civil society protects individual rights, but the military, which protects civil society, must be governed by different rules, civilian society forbids employment discrimination, but lives and combat missions might be put at risk by service members who cannot meet the demands of the battlefield, the military must be able to choose those most able to survive, fight and win.” (Congress 1, 75).
Most studies show that women are biologically weaker than men. They are smaller in stature and have weaker skeletons and upper bodies and cannot do as much as men. Combat not only pushes people to their emotional and mental limits, it can also be inordinately physically demanding as well. A test of Army officer candidates showed that “only one woman out of 100 could meet a physical standard achieved by 60 out of 100 men.” (Congress 2, 59). Likewise there is the question of whether or not women would be able to handle the physical strain of fighter planes. “Aviators on combat missions must maintain situational awareness on all sides while coping with repeated exposure to high G force; i.e., up to 9Gs in the Air Force, 7.5Gs in Navy aircraft.” (Congress 1, 77). It has not yet been proven whether or not the female body can sustain exposure to this severe stress for long periods of time, but it is believed that very few women are strong enough to survive this magnitude of force.
It is also believed that women generally are less able to lift large weights than men because of their smaller upper bodies. Heavy lifting jobs onboard ship such as the transportation of bombs and missiles which previously were done by four men are now assigned to teams of five or six people of mixed gender to do the same task. (Congress 1, 176). On board ship, they say, this kind of redistribution of manpower is not only expensive, it is nearly tactically impossible. At sea, every man counts, and having two people do one man’s job is not an option. Likewise in the Army, cadets and soldiers often need to carry almost 100 pounds of weight over rough terrain for several miles, both in training and in battle. People argue that the physical inferiority of women would make them costs rather than assets in the ranks of combat.
It is said that when he was asked what he thought of the Battle of the Sexes, Gerald Ford said that there could never truly be a Battle of the Sexes as long as there is so much “sleeping with the enemy”. This points out what people say is a real fact of life, if you put men and women together for long periods of time, even if there is no actual sexual misconduct, the risk and implication of impropriety will always exist.
A recently released science-fiction movie, Starship Troopers, portrayed a futuristic view of the Armed Forces, including a scene where men and women who were about to go into combat together even shared communal showers with no stigmatism whatsoever. While this was hardly the most unrealistic scene in the movie, it certainly implied a considerable amount of societal change between now and this time in the future when men and women can work and live together without any sexual tension.
In addition to the intimate relationships that might distract from their work, mixed crews on combat ships could again cause manpower problems in an increasingly downsized military. “Several men volunteered that objections from their wives to the introduction of women aboard ship could cause them to leave the Navy. One man said that although his marriage is secure, he would feel the same way if his wife’s job required her to be living in a closely confined workplace with all male workers for months at a time.” (Congress 1, 179).
Even in a book which examines the issue from a feminist point of view, Gender Differences at Work, outlines some of the problems integration can cause. She gives the example of how Titan missile silos require two people to work in very close spaces and as a result the Navy has adopted the policy of having only same-sex crews working at any given time. (Williams 53).
Unfortunately, unlike in society where a huge labor market is at your disposal, in the military it’s not always feasible to have a crew of all women working in the more specialized fields at any given time. If integrating combat vessels were to cause mass resignations and retirements in the Navy, problems with manpower and repairs, or even just serve to lower morale, the wisdom of the decision would be at best in doubt.
Also there is the risk of sexual molestation from the enemy if captured. One woman, Rhonda Cornum, was reportedly fondled and “violated manually, vaginally and rectally” (Maginnis 1) when her helicopter was shot down by Iraqis in the Gulf War. Conversely, there are no recorded incidents of male POW’s being subjected to sexual violation since the Vietnam conflict (Congress 1, 79).
Another set of limitations to putting women on combat vessels are the considerable changes that would have to be made to accommodate them. They say that whether in barracks or aboard submarines, creating separate sleeping areas, bathing and restroom facilities is simply not a realistic option. Especially in the case of attack submarines, their capacity is already near dangerous limits and there is simply no place to put new facilities. Also, giving separate facilities to the few female passengers onboard and forcing all the men to divide up the remaining ones could cause serious resentment among crewmembers if the impression of unfairness is given.
The biggest perceived risk of integration, however, could be the chance that a woman in a combat role runs the risk of getting pregnant. The problem here is actually twofold: the first being that men think that women on the front lines are getting pregnant to avoid having to go into combat and the second being that once a woman becomes pregnant the kind of work she can be exposed to is severely limited.
As it stands, men can volunteer for combat, but they can also be assigned to combat. If women are allowed to volunteer for combat in the interests of fairness they also would have to be subject to mandatory deployment on the front lines. For this reason, many women may be tempted to get pregnant as a way to get out of combat. “According to a Newsweek report, about once every three days a woman has to be evacuated from Bosnia to Germany because she’s pregnant. That rate is less than half of the ‘Love Boat’, the repair ship Arcadia that lost 36 of its 360 women sailors to pregnancy during the Gulf War.” (Miller 1).
If a woman does not want to go into combat, all she has to do is get pregnant and she will be re-assigned. A man has no such means of getting out of the line of fire. Again the issue of loss of manpower comes up. Ships cannot always afford to lose 10% of their crew in one mission.
There are also limitations to where a woman can work if pregnant. Obviously she cannot be around any amount of nuclear radiation, toxic gases, or perform any heavy labor because of the risk of severely damaging the fetus. Onboard ship or a submarine this eliminates a number of tasks from what women can do. And though the law says that pregnant women in the military can serve up to twenty weeks into their term as long as at all times they are within six hours of medical facilities, on a submarine this is not always an option since they may be submerged for weeks at a time. (Congress 1, 163).
There are a number of compelling reasons that people cite for women to be allowed in combat roles too, however. Among the reasons they cite are: the fact that exclusion from combat impedes their chance of advancement in the ranks, studies that show women can train to be as fit as men, the success of combined units here and in other nations, and the insistence that readiness actually increases when a new pool of applicants exists. The fact that women are not allowed in combat roles, say supporters of integration, is one of the reasons why they do not advance to the highest ranks in the military.
“Another consequence of these policies is that women tend to be concentrated in the lower ranks.” says Williams. “There are approximately 20% more women than men in the four lowest pay grades, and men outnumber women in the four highest pay grades eight to one.” (Williams 51-52).
While there is no official government policy on the matter, combat experience is certainly beneficial when it comes to being considered for promotion. A recent study actually showed that contrary to popular belief, women can train to be as strong as men. The Department of Defense commissioned a $140,000 study to see just what effects a rigorous training program would have on the average woman. “The results were impressive,” said an article in Working Woman magazine, “following the conditioning, 78% of women qualified for ‘very heavy’ Army jobs, versus 24% before. ‘I knew they’d improve’, said Everett Harman, the research psychologist who conducted the study at the Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass., ‘but I didn’t know they could improve that much’.” (Pisik 20).
This evidence supports a logical argument that if even one woman can match the physical capacity of men, then outlawing them from combat solely on the basis of biological inferiority becomes unfair. Mixed gender military units have existed both in the United States and around the world throughout history.
The most famous example of the ability of a woman to not only be involved in combat but to lead forces is that of Joan of Arc’s legendary battles leading the French army when she was just a teenager. These exploits are just one of any number of stories about how women in the past have successfully served in combined forces in the past. “Russian women served in combat in World War II where they flew anti-aircraft planes made of plywood and fabric with no parachutes. They volunteered as bombers and fighter pilots, navigator-bombardiers, gunners, and support crews.” (Casey 1).
Similar stories of bravery come from the Israeli army where women have bravely fought shoulder to shoulder with men in that country’s ongoing battles in the Middle East. Women in Israel are subject to compulsory service just as the men are and are considered a valuable asset in their army.
Similar success stories can be told of the non-combat battalions in our military. Studies were done by the U.S. Army to see if the varying “woman content” actually affected field units. Some controls in the study were units ranging from 0%-15% female, where others went from 15%-35%. Contrary to the results they expected to get, the test proved that the camaraderie, the effectiveness, the performance of combined units in America is not affected by the presence of women. Another study of combat exercises in Europe yielded virtually the same results. (Williams 49-50). It seems that for all the talk, in practical application men and women can get over their tension and work together and get their job done when they have to after all.
Probably the most convincing argument in favor of allowing women to compete for combat positions is the inherent nature of competition. This nation, our entire capitalist system, and the laws of human nature rest on one basic and fundamental truth: competition makes for better products. It is true in the marketplace, where if one company has to compete with another to get a consumer’s dollar they have to put out a more appealing product (“build a better mousetrap and the world will beat down your door” says Williams).
In the same vein, when the applicant pool for any given position is bigger, competition theoretically yields the best person for the job. Because of this, people argue that the military is like any other field. Readiness is not decreased when more people are allowed to apply for combat, it actually benefits, say those who support desegregation.
“Readiness is enhanced when we remove unnecessary impediments to the recruitment, training, and use of people. During the past year-and-a-half, the Department has made major progress in removing such impediments. As a result, some 260,000 more jobs in the military can be filled by either men or women. This represents an increase in the flexibility that the Services need to maintain readiness. Altogether, about 80% of all jobs in the armed services and more than 90% of military career fields can now be filled by the best qualified and available person, man or woman.” (Congress 2, 9).
America’s present position on the issue is good, but it could be better. The Department of Defense recently removed its “substantial risk” clause from its definition of what exactly combat was– that is that just because a woman will be at risk of capture does not mean she cannot fill a position, and as a result today in the Air Force 99.7% of positions are open to women as are 91% of positions in the Navy are open. (RAND 2, 1).
It would seem that the best man for the job could always, theoretically, be a woman. But don’t make it any easier for women; this will just make things worse when it comes to adjustment for men and women. More than that, though, women should neither be given an unfair advantage nor disadvantage when it comes to the military because gunfire doesn’t discriminate. Neither should the Armed Forces.
United States. House of Representatives. Committee on Armed Services. The Military Forces and Personnel Subcommittee. Women in Combat. 103rd Cong., 1st sess. Hearing, May 12, 1993. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994 (herein referred to as “Congress 1”).
United States. House of Representatives. Committee on Armed Services. The Military Forces and Personnel Subcommittee. Assignment of Army and Marine Corps Women Under the New Definition of Ground Combat. 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. Hearing, October 6, 1994. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995 (herein referred to as “Congress 2”).
Maginnis, Lt. Col. Robert L. (USA, ret.) “Leadership Can’t Make Soldiers Ignore Sex”.
Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute – a think tank – whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
Moskos, Charles. “Army Women”, The Atlantic Monthly. August 1990.
The Atlantic Monthly (also known as The Atlantic) is an American literary/cultural magazine founded in Boston in 1857. The magazine covers topics ranging from arts and literature, politics, society, and digital culture. Its creators were a group of writers that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and James Russell Lowell (who would become its first editor).
Pisik, Betsy. “Military Women Exercise Power Potential”. Working Woman Magazine
July/August 1996: 20.
Working Woman Magazine is monthly magazine dedicated to the lives of working women and mothers. It’s a publication of Working Mother Media, a multi-media marketing company that provides strategies and solutions for millions of consumers, specifically working mothers and female business owners, as well as a corporate audience of CEOs, top executive decision-makers and human resources professionals.
Starship Troopers. Produced by TriStar Pictures, Big Bug Pictures, and Touchstone Pictures. 1997. Written by Ed Neumeier.
Starship Troopers is a film about Jonny Rico, played by Casper Van Diem, who upon graduating from school, volunteers for the Mobile Infantry to do his Federal Service, not to help defend his country, but he purposely joined the infantry to win the heart of his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez, who has signed up for the Fleet Academy to become a starship pilot. He undergoes rigorous military training at boot camp along with other young recruits but he has to fend off a love crush from Dizzy Flores, his old schoolmate.
United States Air Force, “Candidate Fitness Test Preparation Guidelines”.
The staff and faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy, in the interest of our future national security, molds our future leaders into outstanding young men and women into Air Force officers with knowledge, character, and discipline; motivated to lead the worlds’ greatest aerospace force in service to the nation. Before its graduates enter various flying and support specialties, the Academy trains them to be, first and foremost, Air Force officers. Of the more than 35,009 cadets have graduated in 44 classes, more than 51.2 percent are still on active duty.
Williams, Christine L. Gender Differences at Work: Women and Men in Nontraditional Occupations. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
Nurses and marines epitomize accepted definitions of femininity and masculinity. Using ethnographic research and provocative in-depth interviews, Christine Williams argues that our popular stereotypes of individuals in nontraditional occupations–male nurses and female marines for example–are entirely unfounded. This new perspective helps to account for the stubborn resilience of occupational stratification in the face of affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies.