The United States Military has finally lifted its ban on women armed service members serving in combat. Women have long participated in military and war, and have increasingly been allowed to participate in all spheres and roles. However, the ban preventing women from serving in combat remained the last
official barrier to their full inclusion in military activity.
In many ways, this move is overdue, considering the number of women service members already serving in combat. The notion of a contained combat zone reflects war practices of yesteryear; so, beyond excluding women from war all together, there remains little possibility of protecting them from direct combat. The longstanding reasons for prohibiting women from participating in the military — and then, once included, arguments against allowing women into specific spheres and jobs in the military — also reflect outdated views about women, sex and gender, the body, and sexuality.
Not Discrimination, Just Practical!
It is now (somewhat) unpopular to openly espouse some of the most hostile sexism of the past. Rather, like in the case of the lingering combat ban, opponents have pointed to practical matters:
Over the years, people have made silly cases against women in combat, but the prevailing argument seems to have been that women have less upper body strength than men — and so would have trouble carrying heavy rucksacks over long distances or wounded soldiers out of harm’s way.
As a soldier, if you’re injured and cannot move, do you want a 6’1″ 220lb. muscular man to carry you to safety, or a scrawny 5’2″ woman to slowly drag you out of danger (likely leading both of you to your deaths)? When framed that way, it makes it more difficult to refute such concerns. The problem inherent in this opposition is it underestimates the strength of all women (and/or overestimates the strength of all men) and exaggerates the differences between women and men by erasing the diversity among women and among men. If we are actually concerned about the 5’2″ marine’s strength, why exclude 6’1″ muscular women from combat while including short, petite men?
Body shape and size aside, there is a good chance any fellow soldier will be able to carry you to safety. Even beyond equality between women and men in strength, some things make me think women are actually stronger and tolerate a lot more pain in life than men.
But, some view the world through sexism-colored glasses, taking a perspective that places differences between men and women at the center, with beliefs about women’s inferior status, strength, intellect, and talent used as justification. The problem, though, is that sexism also affords men the power to force this view, now matter how inaccurate; the reality according to sexism retains the status of Truth while everything else is an opinion.
Women Were Already In Combat
As I noted above, the lift of this formal policy prohibiting women from battle comes after women were already involved in war and combat. But, sexism-colored glasses blind us to the multiple wars that exist. War is not merely a series of battles between nations (run by men) that officially declare war, drawing on armed militaries, and ultimately reach some peace settlement. Throughout history, everyday, and everywhere, there are ongoing wars against women: sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, intimate partner violence, femicide, sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, reproductive control, and so on.
The Battle (For Equality) Is Not Over
Lifting the ban on women serving in combat is, indeed, a major victory for gender equality in the military. But, the institution, like every other, remains anything but equal. Though there are few remaining policies that explicitly discriminate against women, women in the military remain targets of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. Among women service members who file charges when sexually assaulted or harassed, many are silenced, dismissed, or even falsely diagnosed with mental illness and discharged from the military. Further, women and children of other nations are often unnecessarily or unfairly attacked, harassed, and sexually assaulted by US troops.
On a related note, we are still celebrating the recent repeal of the US Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibited openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people from military service. However, transgender and gender non-conforming people are remain excluded from service. And, although LGB individuals are officially included, the military is slow to recognize same-gender relationships and marriages, and to afford military benefits to same-gender partners. By no means is the US military free of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. But, there has been some (slow) progress toward equality.