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Lt. J.g. Jennifer Noonan becomes one of the first three female submariners to achieve the status of fully qualified officer. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ahron Arendes / U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The Frontlines of Feminism

Is the end of the combat exclusion rule a win for all women?

BY Rebecca Burns

It’s as if opponents have a script that they’ve been following for decades: The old argument about unit cohesion was also used to uphold racism and homophobia in the ranks.

On January 24, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he would lift the military’s long-held ban on women serving on the frontlines of combat. The decision followed decades of organizing by women in the military, as well as a federal lawsuit filed in November 2012 that challenged the ban as unconstitutional. Once implemented, the change could open up more than 230,000 military jobs to women.
 
Many service women have lauded the decision, noting that women were already serving in combat scenarios, but were denied recognition and opportunity for advancement. But should feminists treat the right to fight in the military as a battle for workplace equality like any other? In These Times discussed the ban’s lift with Cynthia Enloe, a feminist writer and researcher at Clark University; Maggie Martin, a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War; and Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who works on the case challenging the combat exclusion rule.
 
What prompted this change, and what will it mean for women in the military?
 
Ariela: The credit goes to service women themselves. A lot of women who have recent deployments under their belts and have been exposed to combat came back and were in shock that this policy was still in place. Servicewomen are refusing to be quiet about the gap between the policy that they were serving under and the reality that they found in Afghanistan and Iraq.
 
Maggie: At the same time, some women who have served in actual combat scenarios are still angry. This decision doesn’t adequately level the playing field. To do that, we need open jobs across the board, and standards that include all areas of job performance. Having upper-body strength isn’t the only indicator of a good military leader.
 
Why does the idea of women in combat trigger such a backlash?
 
Cynthia: It’s as if opponents have a script that they’ve been following for decades: The old argument about unit cohesion was also used to uphold racism and homophobia in the ranks. The backlash is almost laughably outdated, but it’s fueled by a real nervousness among some men that the last bastion of “true masculinity” is now beingscaled by feminists. And so they’re asking, “Well, where can we be real men?”
 
The definition of “combat” has shifted over time, yet women have been consistently excluded from participating in it. Why?
 
Cynthia: The notion of combat— not violence, but combat—is basically a made-up idea. Should you send women out 5 minutes after or 20 minutes after combat? Should they go out in the third-to-last car or the fifth-to-last car? Over the past three decades, the Pentagon has tied themselves into pretzels in order to redefine what combat is so that it’s wherever women are not. In the 1980s, electricians and carpenters were among those military jobs that women couldn’t apply for. By the 1990s, the Pentagon had redefined combat so that a woman could suddenly be an electrician or a carpenter. My hunch is that we may next see the special forces exempted from the new rules, in order to preserve this as the new last bastion for true masculinity.
 
Maggie: I was in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, and when I deployed again in 2005, my platoon sergeant wanted me in the front of the convoy because I had a lot of experience. Later that same deployment, I had an opportunity to ride in a Blackhawk helicopter, but that time my platoon sergeant wouldn’t let me go. He said, “What am I going to tell your parents and your husband if something happens to you?”
 
Ariela: The combat exclusion rule caused tremendous confusion on the ground. The question now is: Will whatever new policy the armed services implement lend greater clarity, or will it leave some of these barriers in place and create more confusion?
 
Conservatives mobilized opposition to women in combat in order to kill the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Could the acknowledgement that women do fight on the frontlines impact workplace equality outside the military?
 
Ariela: I typically think of the influence going the other way around. Women are doing every job in the world—this was the only job that, on paper, they weren’t doing. Now, we may see women progress to the top brass of leadership roles. The so-called brass ceiling will be further eroded.
 
Cynthia: I think it also works in the opposite direction: Because the U.S. military is such an important institution in terms of its disproportionate funding, where it fits in the national culture, and its role in holiday rituals, anything that can be done to roll back sexism in the military could help to lessen its masculinizing effect on American culture.
 
Feminists also have a strong tradition of opposing war and imperialism. Does lauding this decision as a victory obscure a critique of militarism?
 
Maggie: I’ve definitely had a mixed reaction. As a former service member, I think that lifting the ban is a huge gain for womens’ equality in the military. But as a peace activist, I worry about anything that strengthens the military’s ability to maintain the occupation. In Iraq Veterans Against the War, we often think about our position as veterans, and whether, by lifting that up, we’re also lifting up the violence that goes along with it. But we also leverage our credibility as veterans to talk about war and the military in a different way. Women organizing for equality in the military face a similar challenge.
 
Cynthia: In our culture, you can militarize even women’s liberation. We can’t regard gaining equality in the military as more important than gaining equality in other spheres of life, or think of soldering as a more important signifier of women’s service than being a civilian worker at a battered women’s shelter.
 
Ariela: Among the service women I’ve represented, I don’t think anybody is arguing that feminists should privilege military service over any other kind of service. But huge numbers of women find themselves in a two-tiered system where they are treated as second-class, and so that’s the terrain where they’re organizing.
 
Gay rights organizers have had a similar debate over whether the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a real advancement. What are the potential drawbacks of organizing for inclusion in the military?
 
Cynthia: Within the American gay rights movement, there’s perhaps been some uncritical thinking about soldiering as the highest form of citizenship, and the need to demonstrate that gays and lesbians can make “good soldiers.”
 
I think there’s been a lot more cross-fertilization between the feminist movement and the peace movement. We have enormous incentive to try to think through how fighting for women’s equality should not be done in any way that could further encourage militarism.
 
Ariela: When you ask, “Why the focus on this one institution?” the answer is that this institution is a part of the largest employer in the country: the government. When you have the government saying explicitly that women are excluded from a core sector of employment, and that they’re going to be second-class citizens when they do join it, then it becomes important to address the workplace discrimination there. The way the government treats people who have signed up to put their lives on the line is an expression of our collective democratic conscience.
 
How can feminists use this decision to build momentum for both gender justice and anti-war organizing?
 
Cynthia: Since Secretary Panetta’s announcement, almost all the discussion has been about women in combat, without making the connections to the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. These issues must be discussed in conjunction⎯and used to illustrate how militarization and patriarchy go hand-in-hand⎯so that the privileging of military force is lessened in American foreign policy and in everyday life.
 

Maggie: And getting more women into leadership roles can help address military sexual trauma. But in the past, women who have made it through the ranks have done so not because they were great feminists, but because they perpetrated the same gender bias as their male counterparts. So the culture shift needs to happen across the board.But there are many positive changes happening in the military—it’s an exciting time.
Still, we haven’t solved the problems that lead us to look to violence as an early option instead of a last resort. Going forward, we need to lift up the triumph of women who are working for the end of war and the right to heal, and continue to build momentum for justice and care for service members.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times staff writer and assistant editor based in Chicago, covering labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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