From Amazon women to GI Jane

Outgoing American secretary of defence Leon Panetta’s decision to remove the remaining barriers to women serving in combat in the US military has drawn remarkably little flak. J BROOKS SPECTOR traces the tortuous evolution of a decision that, from the beginning of time, had ‘inevitable’ stamped all over it. 

About 25 years ago, when I served at an American embassy in a small African nation, my wife and I became acquainted with another couple assigned to the Israeli embassy in the same capital. One of that couple was their embassy’s administrative specialist, while the other was the embassy’s security chief. The Israelis take security pretty seriously and that security specialist had been both a paratrooper and a special ops vet, it turned out, prior to going into their diplomatic service. And, yes, that individual could also wear a dress to a party or to go out in the evening, whenever she felt like doing it. (The Israeli military was an early adopter of having men and women serve in the military together – a function, no doubt, of the extreme demands for “manpower” in a national citizen military in that small nation.)

A recollection of this young female paratrooper turned security officer suddenly came back to me when the news broke that American defence secretary Leon Panetta was moving to authorise women serving in combat in the American military. Panetta’s announcement has come shortly before he retires from the corner office at the Pentagon and returns to his beloved walnut farm in California.

There has always been ambivalence in the human mind – or at least in the male human mind – about women in uniform, in battle, and with lethal weapons. The ancient Mediterranean civilisations bequeathed to us the legends of the Amazons, those ferocious women in armour who were so terrifying men could not defeat them. Meanwhile, classical China has the saga of Mulan, the woman warrior who rose from peasant anonymity – so similar to Joan of Arc – to right wrongs, avenge evil-doing and wreak justice against heartless oppressors by virtue of her skills with weapons. And then, of course, there is the courageous, albeit losing, struggle of Celtic Britain’s Boadicea against the Romans.

Also in the western tradition, besides the Amazons, there are Biblical stories of bellicose women like Deborah and Jael. And, indeed, the very deity often associated with war in the Greco-Roman world, Athena/Minerva, is, curiously, feminine. (More interesting still, some of her other attributes included wisdom and knowledge, the arts, industry, and justice.) The French national symbol, of course, is Marianne, most famously portrayed in Delacroix’s painting as she leads France in battle against its enemies, even though her further, commonly understood attributes, liberty and reason, are also the other side of that ancient duality.

Back in ancient Greece, in his classic comedy, Lysistrata, Aristophanes famously chose to depict feminine weapons a very different way. One of his drama’s characters, Calonice, says to her best friend Lysistrata, “We women who dwell quietly, adorning ourselves in a back-room with gowns of lucid gold and gaudy toilets of stately silk and dainty little slippers…” In response to this admission of helplessness, the play’s heroine, Lysistrata, retorts, “These are the very armaments of the rescue. These crocus-gowns, this outlay of the best myrrh, slippers, cosmetics dusting beauty, and robes with rippling creases of light…” The women, of course, contrive to use their feminine wiles and physical attributes to stop their husbands from fighting the Peloponnesian War any further. They stage their famous bedroom boycott until all the “real” weapons have been put away and peace is finally allowed to break out. Unfortunately, the real war continued until Sparta’s actual defeat of Athens after much more slaughter.

America, too, has had a similar duality in thinking about women in battle. Even before the country was established, the story goes that one woman, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, was part of the usual informal gaggle of women who accompanied the Revolutionary War army – to do, among other tasks, the washing, cooking, and – most especially – bringing water to the troops in the midst of their fighting. As a result of her exertions, she earned the nickname “Molly Pitcher”.

The story goes on that in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth that took place in the midst of a major summer heat wave, her soldier husband either collapsed from heat exhaustion or was wounded and she stepped up to take his place loading his artillery piece, helping turn the tide of battle in a victory over the British Redcoats. Well, maybe the story isn’t totally, 100% accurate in all respects, but Molly Pitcher quickly became a major symbol of American resistance to the British – and an early exemplar of female frontline military service. Concurrently, the other, alternative role of women in battle stems from the example of Clara Barton, the famous Civil War nurse, who, Florence Nightingale-style, never lifted a hand in battle, rather, serving by succouring those wounded in the fighting.

This obvious tension between types persisted for years as military men fought the very idea of women in uniform and, most especially, in combat. Back in the early 1970s, in my own military training, barracks room conversation inevitably turned to talk about women and there was that ubiquitous chant about weapons while training with them : “This is my rifle, this is my gun; one is for killing, the other’s for fun.” And, of course, drill instructors routinely lashed hapless trainees whenever they faltered on some nasty, unpleasant drill or obstacle course with the sneer, “What are you, a bunch of lay-DEES?”

As the feminist revolution gathered strength in the latter part of the 20th century, there seemed to be two contrary views about feminism’s impact on the military. Some argued that having women serve throughout the military without restrictions would fulfil the ultimate promise of women’s lib – levelling the playing field for both sexes. The alternative view was that women spread throughout the military would humanise (or even, if the country was lucky, feminise) the military, thereby making it less authoritarian and misogynistic.

In the end, dealing all these ideas, the military establishment sought a kind of awkward compromise. Rather than simply keep women in the long-organised sexually segregated support units – the Wacs, Waves, military nurses – it would integrate women into mainstream units, but only if it could also keep them out of any frontline combat units, a decision that was officially formalised in 1994.

Other large social currents were also at work in America in the meantime, changing how the military and the population as a whole were thinking about military service. President Harry Truman had integrated the US military in 1948, reversing a long tradition of racial segregation, and turning the military into the most integrated part of American society in the process. And then Bill Clinton instituted the infamous “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy that allowed for a kind of tepid, not entirely up-front integration of gay and lesbian Americans into the military, but only as long as they didn’t tell anybody about their personal preferences.

But, even as women have been added to naval ship crews (with the consequent restructuring of sleeping arrangements) and as they became a regular part of many other units, the military actions of the early 21st century have also conspired to change perceptions and concerns about the circumstances of female service in the military. The irregular nature of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan without a frontline has often meant that women, while officially in non-frontline combat status and serving in helicopter units or engineering, equipment maintenance and transport groups, often have, regardless of their official status on paper, been subjected to enemy fire just like their fellow personnel.

Moreover, as women have been mainstreamed into the military, they have come to the realisation that, unsurprisingly, their lack of service in actual combat units has almost certainly handicapped them in the race to seek and gain promotions. This should not be particularly surprising ­– the military is fundamentally about combat success and so failure to gain command experience was an intangible but probably very real brake on upward progress for ambitious officers, male or female.

These realisations, taken together with the broader current of social change in America, has meant pressure continued to grow within the military, and beyond, to do away with the last real barrier to women in the American military. As a result, it may no longer be particularly surprising that Leon Panetta’s decision to dismantle the remaining barriers for women in the US military has provoked so little opposition – except for a few cautious statements by some scattered conservative women’s groups. Moreover, it has generated public support for the new policy from numerous retired military officers already. Of course the old policy was also facing a series of court tests, perhaps hastening the decision.

The response to Panetta’s decision seems to have been a collective sigh of relief, almost as if to say, “Okay, that’s done. End of story. Next!” Actually, in an all-volunteer force hungry for the best combat material, this decision almost begs the question, “What took so long to do this?” Back in 1997, when that Ridley Scott film with Demi Moore, GI Jane, was released, it seemed little short of outrageous an-already successful female naval officer would go through the punishing Navy Seals training as a test to prep the military for total gender integration. Instead, now that the decision is done, it seems almost certain that, soon enough, we’ll be watching the documentary about such training efforts instead. DM

Photo: Members of the Army march up 5th Avenue during the Veterans Day Parade in New York November 11, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted