Women in the Military

Elizabeth Marino

As an applicant and almost attendant of the United States Naval Academy, I have given deep thought toward the subject of women in the military from a feminist standpoint. There are some arguments against women in combat that I view as legitimate. There are also a number of arguments against women in combat that always get trotted out but which I think are basically just cultural prejudices.

1) Women are not as brave as men, or as psychologically tough as men. Oh, yeah?  I just don’t buy it.

2) It’s worse when women die or suffer hardship than when men die or suffer hardship. Not true. All human life is equally valuable. My friend’s life is worth just as much as mine. Many years ago, I saw an elderly southern general argue on “Today” that people who advocate for women to serve in the military just don’t know what it’s like. He said he wouldn’t want his daughters to have to bathe in muddy water or go to the bathroom in the woods or not be able to brush their teeth for days on end or whatever. Not convincing – I wouldn’t especially wish all that on anyone, but why would it be worse for me than for a man?

3) Women might get raped if they are captured during war. Yeah, so? Bad stuff happens during war. That’s why it’s war. Rape isn’t something I want to minimize, but I don’t buy into the notion that women are somehow more vulnerable to brutality than men. Male prisoners of war can also be raped, or they can be brutalized in other ways. Recall the physical and psychological torture inflicted on Senator McCain when he was a prisoner of war.

4) Male soldiers will put themselves at risk to protect female soldiers. This argument is based upon the supposed protective “instinct” men have toward women. First, I doubt this is a deep-seated instinct, given the statistics showing the prevalence of crimes of rape and domestic violence by men against women. I think men are socialized (with varying success!) to be protective toward women, but that doesn’t mean that they will behave inappropriately during battle once they are trained to view their female comrades as fellow soldiers.

5) If women are in combat, men will no longer feel the need to protect women in other areas of life.  So that means men are stupid? They can’t tell the difference between a fellow soldier who does not need special help, and a woman who needs some sort of protection? In any case, a gender-neutral code of “chivalry” is more useful: it should be a given in our culture that the strong protect the weak regardless of gender.

6) Allowing women to be subject to violence by the enemy is tantamount to a cultural endorsement of violence against women generally. Again, men are stupid? They can’t understand why it is okay to send an armed and trained female soldier into combat but not okay to beat up a civilian woman?

7) Women will be vulnerable during combat because they need more time to go to the bathroom. Uh, no. I don’t want to get too gross, but give a woman a flap in the right place and it’s not that tough to go to the bathroom. During menstruation, I think women can take care of what needs taking care of more efficiently than men may believe. And even if there is some impediment to a woman’s ability to take care of her sanitary needs because of the combat situation she is in, she can still fight. 

So that leaves the only three arguments against women in combat that I think could potentially have some merit: 1) Women weaken military effectiveness because women are generally physically weaker than men (although I still am on the fence about this – women can do pull-ups, too!), 2) Mixed gender units are less cohesive due to love affairs and sexual attractions among member of the unit (who doesn’t love a man or woman in uniform?) and 3) Women are often unable to deploy due to pregnancy (we have to keep the population booming, right?).