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Laura Miller received
her Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University
and is currently a National Security Fellow at
the John M. Olin Institute. She would like to
acknowledge Beth Clifford, Arlene Kaplan Daniels,
Michael Desch, Jane Mansbridge, Charles Moskos,
and Art Stinchcombe for their insightful comments
on earlier drafts of this paper, and is deeply
indebted to General Gordon R.Sullivan for supporting
her endeavors and providing such unique access
to soldiers while he was Army Chief of Staff.
The ideas presented herein are not intended to
represent the views of the U.S. Army or the Department
While claiming to represent the views of military women on the combat exclusion
policy, feminist activists actually represent only the policy preferences
of women whose life circumstances are most similar to their own and whose
beliefs meet the needs of a more general feminist agenda. Thus, feminists
have inadvertently alienated many women they believe they represent. Furthermore,
the feminist framing of the debate is neither tailored to fit the specific
nature of the military as an organization (one which does not value individualist
perspectives) nor the particular circumstances of the lives of military
women (particularly enlisted and/or minority women).
Feminism and the Exclusion of Army Women
Many Army women are puzzled when they see feminists in the media who are
pushing to open up combat roles to women, because they are unaware of any
women who are interested such roles.1
These feminist activists accept the policy for men as the standard and seek
to apply that policy to women. Thus they support making women eligible for
the draft and assigning them to combat arms even on a non-voluntary basis
Many Army women, however, tend to feel that lobbying for compulsory service
for women is regressive, and instead believe that serving in the military
and in a combat role should be voluntary for both men and women. When pressed
to choose between the status quo and a compulsory policy, women soldiers
tend to support the status quo. Ultimately, though, most Army women support
a policy matching Army needs with the women's choices, skills and abilities.
This is the basic formula used to assign men to occupational specialties.
In this paper I explore the parallel yet sometimes divergent histories of
feminism and women's military service, and explain the gap between the two
that exists today. I find it problematic, yet understandable, that feminist
activists choose an agenda that achieves consistency yet fails to convey
the preferences of the women for whom they claim to speak. Here activists
must choose between the competing goals of creating a debatable rhetoric,
versus representing the sometimes contradictory wishes of women. Yet, when
only one feminist agenda has the floor, women whose views are ignored may
become alienated from the very feminist movement that struggles to reach
Many Army women do call for an end to gender-based policy, and object to
studies that treat gender as the only salient variable in their environment.
However, these women maintain a belief system about gender that accounts
for the influence of biological differences and disparate socialization
of the sexes, but does not fall prey to entirely determinist or social constructionist
arguments. Army women tend to reject arguments that women and men have the
same abilities, but they also refuse to support policy decisions based on
generalizations about the average man or woman. They think the military
hierarchy and division of labor should be based on evaluations of good leaders
and bad, skilled technicians and able communicators, small agile soldiers
and soldiers with brute strength. If women are subsequently underrepresented
in some fields, they say, so be it. Many women soldiers believe that women
who enjoy traditionally female occupations should not be ashamed of their
jobs or forced into traditionally male occupations to meet a quota or prove
a feminist point.
Leading the movement for policy changes in the armed forces are feminist
activists who claim to represent the interests of military women, but who
actually represent only one segment of Army women. Army women whose beliefs
match those of the activists tend to be officers and/or white. Enlisted
women and women of color are more likely to support opening options for
women's service, but prefer either the conditions of service remain unequal,
or suggest bringing men's policy more in line with that for women. Thus
Army women are more likely to oppose drafting women or assigning them to
the combat arms, although they support a voluntary option for women who
are willing and capable of serving. Minority women in particular have less
reason to believe activists' argument that full integration of military
women will lead to equality for women in society, because a similar prophecy
did not come true as a result of black integration.
To move forward the debates on women in the military (which have tended
to be repetitious through the years), I reveal in this paper why feminist
activists may need to reexamine their strategies. Feminist arguments that
are based on individual rights but do not mention women as serving organizational
needs may not speak effectively to an institution that subsumes individual
rights for the "greater good." By treating gender differences
as entirely socially constructed, activists have failed to equip military
women with the tools to understand physical difference or to challenge arguments
based on that difference. By focusing on women as victims of sexual harassment,
activists have failed to recognize and pass along the strategies of women
who have confronted and managed gender conflict despite the hostile environment.
Because they treat the military culture's ideal man as accurately reflecting
all military men, activists have not yet identified and taken advantage
of men who do not fit the stereotype and who would support their goals.
Furthermore, they alienate women who simply do not find their male coworkers
to be "the enemy."
Finally, I urge feminists to consider a policy agenda that has previously
been rejected, but is a compromise and a step forward with which most military
women would agree (as would a number of military men). This choice is to
open combat roles to women on a voluntary basis, implement physical screening
tests that ensure only qualified men and women are admitted, and to abandon
the goal of equality in the form of quotas for equality in opportunity.
The data presented in the text come from multiple
waves of field research of active-duty Army soldiers from early 1992 to
late 1994. I used a multimethod strategy that capture both large-scale attitudinal
patterns and individual viewpoints. To collect the data, I traveled to eight
stateside Army posts and two national training centers where soldiers conduct
war games on a simulated battlefield. I also surveyed troops stationed at
U.S. bases in Germany, and lived in Army encampments for ten days in Somalia
during Operation Restore Hope (March 1993), for seven days in Macedonia
during Operation Able Sentry (July 1994), and for six days in Haiti during
Operation Uphold Democracy (October 1994).
FEMINISM AND MILITARY WOMEN IN HISTORICAL
In designing the study, I drew on the grounded theory tradition, which was
initially proposed by Glaser and Strauss in 1967 to separate the discovery
and elaboration of theory from its verification. Rather than preconceiving
a theoretical framework and then testing it; the theory was developed out
of patterns emerging from the data. (For example, before entering the field
I had no idea that the disjuncture between feminist activists and military
women even existed, let alone what the nature of that alienation might be.)
Thus, my initial approach was inductive (within a range of topics), and
I was interested in how people constructed the issues for themselves. Because
I was able to re-enter the field a number of times, in later phases I was
able to test and further refine some of the theoretical implications emerging
after the first waves of data collection.
I collected qualitative data through participant observation, one-on-one
unstructured interviews, discussion groups, and informal conversations with
soldiers. Given the military context and the sensitive nature of some of
the issues, I relied on written notes rather than tape-recording. There
was no formal interview schedule: rather I carried a short list of topics
I was interested in and to which I could steer the discussion. I typically
began interviews or conversations with an open-ended question and then probed
when necessary. I preferred to let the interviewees shape the discussion
and bring up the issues they found most relevant. Some discussions were
only fifteen minutes, taken up for example while waiting in line for dinner;
others lasted one to two hours during scheduled interview time or during
meals. As I toured different work sites on post or during overseas operations,
I was permitted to approach and interview people as they worked. I was able
to spend several hours talking with soldiers who were my escorts or with
whom I shared accommodations at night.
I also collected large-scale survey data in order to analyze the relationships
between soldiers' demographics and their attitudes on a wide range of issues.
The ethnographic data were cross-validated by multiple waves of questionnaires
totaling over 4,100. The setting for administering questionnaires varied
by site. At stateside posts, soldiers most commonly completed surveys in
auditoriums, gym bleachers, movie houses, or at their work stations. Those
surveyed during overseas missions filled them out wherever they could: in
tents set up for dining facilities, while sitting on their cot, in makeshift
offices, on the tops of vehicles, or sometimes just sitting on the ground.
In all cases the respondents were guaranteed anonymity, and they placed
their individual surveys in an open suitcase with other surveys (which was
especially important when groups were small).
Soldiers were encouraged to write their own responses if they did not find
their opinion represented among the choices, or if they wanted to expand
on or introduce an important topic. Many soldiers wrote extensive comments,
providing qualitative material that could be tied to demographic data and
attitudes on other topics.
This paper focuses on the wave of questionnaires that asked about the women's
movement,2 the draft,
exclusion of women from combat, and the status of women in the military.
This wave includes responses from 980 women. Men's responses on these issues,
as well as a discussion of how men's and women's views interact in their
daily work are presented in-depth in the author's larger unpublished manuscript
(Miller 1995). Statistical analyses of the questionnaire responses often
revealed differences by rank, race, and military occupational specialty
(MOS). Where significant variation appeared by these variables, I report
them along with my qualitative data.
I employed a combination of nonrandom sampling techniques for both the questionnaires
and interviews because of the ethnographic emphasis of my study and the
impracticality of random sampling in the field or on military posts. Quota
sampling was used to approximate the rank, racial, and occupational composition
of the Army as a whole. Because of my focus on gender, I oversampled women:
women make up only about 12 percent of the Army population, but account
for about 40 percent of my sample. Through purposive sampling, I sought
experts such as commanding generals, equal opportunity officers, personnel
staff members, chaplains, military intelligence officers, and psychologists.
The respondents also included veterans of operations in Panama, the Persian
Gulf, Somalia, Macedonia, Haiti, and numerous other small scale peacekeeping
missions, as well as Kurdish relief in Iraq and Hurricane Andrew relief
After each wave of data collection, I evaluated the questionnaires, edited
them for clarity, and lengthened them with additional questions suggested
by the soldiers. One of the benefits of the multimethod, multiwave approach
was that the interviews shaped revision of the questionnaire, and the written
comments on the questionnaires added to the interview schedule.
The gap between American mainstream feminism
and many of the women who serve in the armed forces may have emerged in
part from their separate, although at times intersecting, historical background.
ARMY WOMEN'S VIEWS
Women gained political visibility in the United States in the early 1800s.
Upper-class white women lobbied to increase their educational opportunities
at the college level; a more varied group joined forces to fight slavery
and establish antilynching laws. The first wave of feminism built on this
activism as women organized under the unifying banner of female suffrage
(Anderson 1993). Part of the rationale that women offered for extending
the vote to their gender rested on women's presumed moral superiority to
men and the civilizing influence of their participation in the state: "World
peace, social harmony and the well-being of humanity will only exist when
women get the vote and are able to help men make the laws" (from the
early 1800s, cited in Wishnia 1991, 84).
The link between feminist activism and pacifism was formally established
in the United States in 1915, when Jane Addams and suffragist Carrie Chapman
Catt created the Women's Peace Party, unifying active members of other women's
organizations (Wishnia 1991). This political activity, now known as the
"first wave" of American feminism, waned after the Nineteenth
Amendment was adopted in 1920, although smaller-scale activism continued
The birth of feminism preceded and was generally unconcerned with women's
official participation in the armed forces. Women who participated in the
Civil War and the Spanish-American War did so either as nurses, as camp
followers, or disguised as men (Enloe 1983; Holm 1992). In World War
I approximately 13,000 white women served as volunteers in mostly clerical
roles in the Navy and Marines, and 21,000 served in the Army and Navy Nurse
Corps.3 These changes
were initiated by men in government and the military in response to military
need (Holm 1992).
Although some people feared that women's wartime military service might
subvert the gender norms, those who initiated the inclusion of women did
not consider this type of service a challenge to their traditionally prescribed
roles. The government intentionally advertised women's participation as
a natural extension of their traditional roles in a time of crisis (Holm
1992). Women took care of the home front in support of the men who
went off to fight overseas. Moreover, military women during World War I
were officially serving with, not in, the armed forces, and were not accorded
full military privileges. After the war, most of these women lost their
military positions and returned to caring for "home and hearth."
Although early feminists did not collectively challenge the exclusion of
women from military service, they were developing a rhetoric of rights and
roles for women that laid the foundation for future challenges (Rhode 1989).
Women's auxiliary military branches were formed, and an unprecedented 350,000
women participated in World War II (Holm 1992, 100). Yet feminism
was barely visible during this time. Women were likely to be better typists
then than men, and could "do the work of two men while taking up only
half the resources"; these facts translated into a visible contribution
to military efficiency (Holm 1992). Furthermore, recruiting campaigns
encouraged women to join, to "free a man to fight" (Holm 1992).
Again, the demands of the war led to greater inclusion of women and blacks,
two previously restricted groups.4
The Women's Army Corps (WAC), however, was the only branch to accept black
women as soldiers. The 4,000 who were admitted served mainly in segregated
conditions; and only one unit, the 6888th, was called for overseas duty
(Holm 1992, 76-79; Moore 1993, 1995).
After World War II, women's participation in the military plummeted again.
In 1948 the Women's Armed Services Integration Act was passed, and set activist
agendas for decades to come by limiting gender integration with caps on
enlistment, promotion, and combat participation for women. The only women
to serve in war zone in the Korean War (1950-1953) were 500 to 600 nurses
(Holm 1992, 149). During the Vietnam War (1965-1973), five to six
thousand women nurses and about 1,500 other military women served in southeast
Asia. Fewer than 500 WACs served within the borders of Vietnam, and nonmedical
servicewomen were prohibited from serving in combat zones (Holm 1992;
214, 228). When the controversial draft was ended in 1973, Congress and
defense planners found that women had to be recruited to fill the demand
for qualified personnel in the new All-Volunteer Force (Marsden 1986).
Feminism regained its momentum in the 1960s. Feminist activists and scholars
fought for gender equality while men were being drafted to serve in Vietnam.
Some of these feminists began to analyze gender, war, and military service.
Some continued in the tradition of linking pacifism with feminism; others
chose to promote women's military service as the route to first-class citizenship.
These views have produced two divergent perspectives on whether women should
serve in the armed forces.
Although the rise of feminism and women's integration into the military
were somewhat separate events, military women have benefited from feminists'
efforts, whether or not those feminists were concerned with the military.
Affirmative action lawsuits and the political pressures created by activism
when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was still pending helped to expand
women's roles in the military and lift restrictions on their numbers and
promotion opportunities. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the
Service (DACOWITS) has pursued quality-of-life issues for women, assisting
(for example) in efforts to obtain properly fitting uniforms and boots for
women when such items were not made to match women's shapes or sizes. Most
recently, feminists' outrage at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing by
the Senate, and the Tailhook scandal have led to a complete overhaul of
Army sexual harassment policy; this policy now takes women's complaints
more seriously and deals with them much more quickly than in the past.
Yet some feminist goals, beliefs, and agendas contradict or differ from
those of military women. While the women's movement campaigned to win equal
pay for equal work, military women already were enjoying a system that ostensibly
paid by rank, not by job (Holm 1992).5
The pacifist branch of feminism did not condone, and sometimes even condemned,
women's participation in the armed forces. Many ERA supporters, however,
felt that the only position consistent with gender equity was to support
the inclusion of women in the draft and in combat roles. This position alienated
mainstream Americans and probably cost the ratification of the ERA (Holm
1992; Mansbridge 1986; Marsden 1986). In the words of one individualist
observer: "Those supporting 'equal rights' so bypassed the issue of
difference that their clarion call to solidarity rang hollow in most women's
ears" (Cott 1986, 57).
The feminist division on women and military service has developed from two
separate strands of feminist theory. These strands have been discussed in
feminist literature under various labels: relational versus individualist
feminism, cultural versus liberal feminism, or difference versus sameness
feminism. Feminists located in the first tradition generally adopt a pacifist
view and express dismay at women' interest in joining the armed forces.6 The second tradition,
however, has produced a group of feminists who use rights-based arguments
to push for the greater inclusion of military women. These feminists claim
to represent the interests of military women in their very public activities
as lobbyists, spokespeople and publishing scholars. Ironically, the policy
preferences they advocate do not reflect the position of most of the Army
women in my survey. It is the diversity of Army women's opinions, and not
only the view represented by feminist activists, that this paper seeks to
Individualist Feminists and Advocacy for Military Women
One strand of feminist thinking, identified by Karen Offen as individualist
feminism, reflects the liberal foundations of American political thought
and American feminism:
[It] privileges the individual, virtually without reference to the community
or group. Physiological differences and hence sociopolitical differences
are muted, and equality of individuals and their claim to certain "rights"
or entitlements, based on an eighteenth-century model devised for male heads
of households (not single men), is uncompromisingly asserted. Within individualist
feminism, womanly qualities or attributes are necessarily downplayed (1990,
From this framework, individualist feminists argue for the fullest possible
inclusion of women in the military, including eligibility for the draft
and assignment to the combat arms (Devilbiss 1985, 1990; Holm 1992;
Mansbridge 1986; Schroeder 1991; M. Segal 1982, Segal and Hansen 1992; Stiehm
1989, 1981, 1983). This branch of feminism is not necessarily promilitary;
rather, it contends "that the best way to insure women's equal treatment
with men is to render them equally vulnerable with men to the political
will of the state" (Jones 1984, 75). The notion of a link between women's
citizenship and military service has a historical precedent in the United
States: "[T]he connection made between the obligation to defend the
state and the right to share in the exercise of sovereignty was stated forcefully
in the Dred Scott decision of 1856" (Jones 1984, 82).
The strongest arguments against women in the combat arms revolve around
issues of women's biology. The Persian Gulf War and the numerous peacekeeping
operations in the past five years have convinced many people that men and
women can live in the field without detriment to unit cohesion or efficiency,
and that the American public can tolerate women casualties and POWs (Binkin
1993; Miller 1995; USGAO 1993). The combat roles that have opened
to women in this period have been those in which physical strength was not
the central issue; thus combat pilot positions have become available but
infantry and armor have not.
In pressing for inclusion of women in all military roles, political and
scholarly activists explain differences between men's and women's physical
capabilities as the result of disparate socialization. Therefore they minimize
physical differences between men and women or dismiss them as unimportant
to the debate. Consider the following argument by Representative Patricia
The real issue is training. Some women can indeed carry as much weight,
throw as far and run as fast as some men in physical strength and endurance.
Such athletes as pitching ace Kathy Arendsen, who throws a softball 96 miles
per hour, underhand, and Florence Griffith Joyner, who runs the 100 meters
faster than O.J. Simpson ever ran while competing for USC, would scoff at
the "girls can't throw" argument. These women demonstrate that
trained individuals can do anything (1991, 73).
Thus, the abilities of exceptional women are used to suggest a world in
which girls would be socialized the same as boys. This world, of course,
is not the one in which Army women currently live.
More effectively, these activists argue that physical strength requirements
vary by job, and that not all men have great upper body strength. Excluding
women as a class when some women qualify and some men do not is therefore
an unjust reason for denying women the same opportunities for advancement
in the armed services (M. Segal 1982, 271).
To counter the persistent argument that women should not serve because of
possible pregnancy, individualist feminists point out that
The average American woman is pregnant for a very small proportion of her
life and some women never do become pregnant at all. Also important is the
fact that people in combat jobs do not spend most of their time in combat,
further reducing the incidence of pregnancy interfering with job performance.
The fact that most women can get pregnant is no reason to exclude all women
from a particular job, just as the fact that men can get the flu or venereal
disease is not used to exclude them from a job (M. Segal 1982, 273).
Furthermore, statistics consistently show that women lose less time in the
service because of pregnancy than do men for sports injuries, drug and alcohol
abuse and other disciplinary problems (Holm 1992; Stiehm 1989).
Feminists who have chosen to promote women's participation in the military
include politicians (notably Representative Pat Schroeder of the House Armed
Services Committee), scholars (D'Ann Campbell, M.C. Devilbiss, Mady Wechsler
Segal, Judith Hicks Stiehm), military officers (Air Force Major General
Jeanne Holm, Ret., Army Brigadier General Evelyn Pat Foote, Ret., Army Captain
Carol Barkalow, Army Captain Carolyn Becraft, Ret.), and members of the
Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (hereafter DACOWITS).
Hereafter the term activists will refer to the feminist advocates of women
in the military such as those mentioned above.
The DACOWITS was established in 1951 by the Department of Defense to aid
in the recruitment of women during the Korean War. Today the committee acts
as a watchdog on a range of issues that concern military women. The group
is comprised of professional women (and a few men) nominated by members
of Congress, who typically serve a three year term on this committee as
an extension of their political career.
These and the other feminist activists are to be credited with their role
in keeping the spotlight on disparities against military women, and for
publicizing military women's contribution. Without them, there is no other
public or organized pressure on the armed services and/or the government
to continually assess military policies and practices toward women. Whenever
the rights of military women come under attack, these activist's protests
appear in the media. These women are prominent in the deliberations on women's
military roles because they lobby, investigate, report, and write with the
intention of representing and improving military women's lives.
Thus the agenda for change is led primarily by women who are former or present
military officers or civilian middle- or upper-class professionals. The
representatives of military women have not been chosen by military women
nor have they been selected by an external authority to be representative
of that population. When Army women I interviewed referred to this group,
they either spoke very generally about "those who are trying to change
things in Washington," or mentioned the DACOWITS or Pat Schroeder specifically.
Pat Schroeder thus appears to be the most visible spokeswoman (and indeed
she frequently appears in the media speaking to this issue); and the DACOWITS
is known primarily because its members make investigative excursions to
military posts where they interview women and subsequently submit reports
and recommendations to the Department of Defense.
What became apparent during my fieldwork was that the DACOWITS had a reputation
among soldiers for having an "agenda," and that commanders were
concerned that members' evaluations of their posts be favorable. Men and
women soldiers complained to me about the process by which the DACOWITS
members collect their data. First, they charged that commanders typically
sent soldiers whom they knew to possess a view compatible with that of the
DACOWITS to meet with its visiting members. Second, troops complained that
instead of anonymous interviews, soldiers had to sign in for small group
interviews. This procedure, coupled with the fear that a poor DACOWITS report
might hurt one's career (a claim I cannot substantiate but which clearly
influenced soldiers' behavior), made some soldiers' feel obliged to give
the "party line."
The uniform nature of the DACOWITS views and recommendations despite the
ever-changing membership is striking. Programs from annual meetings (located
in the Pentagon library) reveal a common format that includes the testimony
of women who have been harassed or discriminated against during their service,
and women who feel that the combat exclusion policy has hindered their careers.
Absent are the testimonies of women who have found harassment-free environments
who might share valuable information about such locations. Also absent are
any dissenting voices on the issue of women in combat. Thus, the conclusions
and the recommendations consistently reflect a single, unconflicted view
that appears to represent the wishes of military women.
Filed in the DACOWITS office in the Pentagon are its members' reports from
trips to domestic and overseas bases. With considerable effort, I was able
to gain access to those files, although I was not allowed to copy any of
them. In the hours spent examining those files, one report clearly stood
out. This report began with a qualifying statement by the woman who filed
it, expressing her hesitance to relate what she knew would be an unwelcome
account of her visit. Her conscience persuaded her to file it anyway and
take the heat for being unpopular. The controversial content was the vocalization
of Army women who did not support opening the combat arms to women. Elaine
Donnelly, another former committee member, has also written about being
ostracized for even bringing up arguments that question the appropriateness
of women in the combat arms. Rather than a format where difficult practical
issues were grappled with, Ms. Donnelly felt that "there is an ideological
'songbook' for DACOWITS, and everyone who is associated with the Committee
is expected to sing along" (1991, 32).
The literature, public speeches, and policy recommendations of the feminist
scholars and activists on this issue all tell one story: of military women
who are no different from men and who are anxious to serve in the combat
arms. Such unanimity is highly suspect.
Not of One Mind
[Table 1 about here]
Media portrayals of the debate on women in combat also depict women soldiers
as a monolithic group fighting for rights that men would rather continue
to deny them. The media gave extensive coverage to exclusion of women from
combat roles in 1992 and 1993. Much of this attention derived from a presidential
commission that was established to consider all sides of the conflict and
to make policy recommendations. In those two years, out of 23 New York
Times and 39 Los Angeles Times stories on women in combat, only
two even suggested that some military women might not want to enter the
combat arms; one of those mentions was a report of my own survey data (available:
Nexis Library: Nexis File: NEWS).7
Nearly all of the military women quoted in these stories were pilots, a
rather elite group of commissioned officers. Although military women both
for and against the combat restriction testified before the presidential
commission, only the latter were quoted in these major newspapers. To the
general reader, military women appear to be a single-minded group who want
access to combat roles not only for the challenge, but because they believe
that such a change will improve their chances of promotion and increase
their status in the military.
Army women in my survey, however, hardly agree on the issue of women in
combat. Enlisted women and women of color particularly are likely to oppose
assigning women to combat military occupational specialties (MOSs). Many
express resentment toward officers and civilian activists who are attempting
to open combat roles to women. They argue that the activists do not realize
the hardships associated with those roles on the enlisted level. Some, like
one white NCO with Desert Storm experience, were obviously frustrated: "Who
does that Pat Schroeder think she is? Has she ever talked to me? To her?
To any of us? If she came here, I'd sure give her a piece of my mind."
(Pat Schroeder and the DACOWITS, being most visible to military women, were
often the target of their hostilities.)
Whether women would be able to volunteer for such roles or would be compelled
to fill them, many Army women do not believe they could successfully perform
ground combat roles because of the physical limitations they already confront
in their current jobs.
Table 1 shows the survey responses of Army women
asked to express their preference for policy on women and combat roles.
Roughly three-quarters support allowing women who are interested to volunteer
for the combat arms. Many, however, qualified their response verbally or
with written comments that the volunteers must be able to meet the physical
requirements: "I think if a woman wants to serve in a combat unit and
can meet the physical standards, she should be allowed to. There are some
women in the Army more capable than some men. I want the most capable soldier
up front defending me." The insistence on physical qualification neutralizes
any protest that the "standard will be lowered" if women are admitted.
[Table 2 about here]
Since the Army already has other entrance requirements and specific requirements
for particular MOSs, it seems reasonable to expect that the military could
develop and implement physical requirements for heavy labor MOSs, such as
the ground combat MOSs. However, the implementation of just such a tool
was attempted in 1984, but failed. The Army developed the Military Entrance
Physical Strength Capacity Test (MEPSCAT), which categorized MOSs into five
categories of physical demand. The test placed 64 percent of jobs to be
in the heaviest labor category, and estimated that only 8 percent of the
42 percent of women in those fields could meet the standard (Binkin 1993,
30). Naturally feminists wondered if this test was developed as a barrier
to women's participation and questioned whether the purported standards
were realistic and relevant for the positions. Ultimately the MEPSCAT was
used merely as a "guidance tool" at enlistment, which did not
carry much weight and was eventually discarded in 1990 (Binkin 1993).
Therefore, I argue that the construction of new physical standards must
include feminists and women serving in many of those heavy labor fields
to ensure that the standards reflect the physical demands of the actual
jobs. Whether the organization of the workplace and/or equipment design
makes the job unnecessarily heavy should also be considered. For example,
cable could be portioned in 50 pound reels instead of 100 pound reels.
Some women reject even a qualified voluntary option and prefer the status
quo, with combat exclusion rules intact: in my survey this was true of 20
percent of enlisted women, 23 percent of noncommissioned officers (NCOs),
and 16 percent of officers.8
One black NCO wrote, "Women should not be forced to serve in a combat
role. We are the fruit bearers of the world. We do not have the physical
ability to withstand as much as our fellow man. Yes, we try to keep up to
a certain degree in order to make it, but let's face it, we are not strong
enough." One enlisted woman of color ("other race" category)
based her opinion on her experience in Desert Storm:
I believe women should be kept out of direct combat units such as the infantry
and armor. Combat support units are fine. I served in a combat support unit
during the war for 6 months and there were many more problems for the female
soldiers out there than there were for the males (physically speaking).
If the Army approved women in direct combat units it would only cause the
unit to become less efficient.
These women's statements demonstrate that such views are not espoused only
by sexist men, and that feminists also may need to address and persuade
some military women to accept their agenda.
Officers are more likely than other soldiers to support a policy that treats
men and women alike, compelling women to serve in the combat arms if the
Army needs them. Of those who support a combat policy that would assign
women to combat roles on the same terms as men, 13 percent were officers,
as opposed to only 3 percent of enlisted women and 4 percent of NCOs. One
enlisted woman, a truck driver, feels that compelling someone take to a
position, once they have enlisted, is a fair policy: "I believe this
is a volunteer Army so therefore, women should be just as susceptible to
combat as men. If not, then go work at a day care center. After all, a man
in a combat role (same rank structure) gets paid the same as a woman."
Another enlisted woman speculated about the impact of her choice: "I
believe it should be a regulation that both men and women be required to
enlist [in] combat, but I believe the rate of females joining the Army would
distinctly decrease." One captain qualified her choice at length:
I do not think it would be equitable to allow women to volunteer for combat
roles. The only equitable treatment is for both men and women to be compelled
to serve in combat. (We cannot allow our National Security to depend upon
men and women volunteering.) If only those women who wanted to were allowed
to volunteer, there would be resentment among the men who can be compelled.
While I do believe that women should be compelled just as men, we also need
to use some common sense. In the Army, the [combat] units which most all
women are physically capable of serving in are Armor and Mechanized Infantry.
Units such as Light Infantry, Rangers and Special Forces are different.
Women should not be compelled to serve in these types of units because of
the waste of taxpayers money when a large percentage fail and need to be
moved. Maybe very fit women could volunteer for these units if they could
meet the same standards as men.
Interestingly, the voluntary option tends to be thrown out of the debate
by both those trying to keep women out of the combat arms and those trying
to make the policy exactly the same for men and women. The Presidential
Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces omitted the voluntary
position even before their deliberations began. Their rationale was that
they could not consider a voluntary assignment policy because it would create
a double standard (Presidential Commission 1992). The commission then went
on to spend much time and money debating a compulsory policy versus the
status quothe latter, of course, being a double standard. In the end, even
some of their recommendations were to maintain a double standard in the
form of total exclusion in some fields in some branches of the military.
I asked women who supported the voluntary option whether they supported
a double standard for men and for women. Many responded that the voluntary
option should be available for men as well. When I added a survey question
on combat policy that included as a choice a voluntary option for both men
and women, 46 percent of the women chose this answer (N=768). One white
enlisted woman in the medical field reasoned, "Anything that needs
to be accomplished should only be accomplished by volunteers. That is how
you find the efficient workers, dedicated to doing the job. If something
is forced upon someone unwillingly, that individual will not put forth 100%
due to lack of interest or pressure." The military counters that wars
cannot be fought and won on the basis of public support and volunteers (which
may be particularly true for protracted wars).
In one of the last waves of the survey I first gave women the typical three
policy options for women's service in the combat arms, along with an additional
category, "It doesn't really matter to me what is decided." Their
answers broke down similar to those reported in Table 1, with only 3 percent
selecting the new category that it does not matter. Then the survey asked
them their position if the Army had to decide between only two policy options,
the status quo or a compulsory policy. Surprisingly, 65 percent of the women
chose the status quo, 24 percent chose the compulsory policy, and 11 percent
said it did not matter (N=96). While this sample is small, it does demonstrate
that we cannot assume that women who support the voluntary option would
choose the compulsory option if given only two options.
As stated earlier, feminist activists promoting
women's military service also view the draft as necessary for securing equal
status for women. Table 2 shows the results of a question asking soldiers
"If the draft were reinstated, which of the following policies would
you support?" Rank and race are factors in women's division over a
position on women and the draft; their effects are shown separately in this
table for readability. Nearly half of the officers believe that "women
should be drafted and eligible for combat roles," compared with only
about one quarter of enlisted women and NCOs. By race, white women (40 percent)
were more likely to support this option than women of other races (about
25 percent). A white lieutenant's view paralleled the civilian activists'
philosophy: "If women want equal rights in this country, they're going
to have to accept equal responsibility."
[Table 3 about here]
On the other end of the spectrum, those entirely opposed to drafting women
are 35 percent enlisted, 28 percent NCOs, and only 20 percent officers.
By race, Hispanics were most likely to oppose the draft (46 percent), followed
by blacks, women of "other" races, and finally whites (34, 29,
and 24 percent respectively). Here again, many women expressed resistance
to compelling anyone into military service. In the words of a white enlisted
woman in communications, "I don't believe anyone should be forced to
do something they cannot handle or don't believe in. I believe that all
should be allowed freedom to choose destiny. Only the individual can determine
what is best for him/herself, not society and definitely not the government."
In agreement is a black enlisted woman who questioned whether the draft
is equitable: "I also believe the draft is biased and should be eliminated.
No one should do what they don't want to. That goes for anything."
The survey also asked women whether they felt
they were physically capable of serving in the infantry or armor. As displayed
in Table 3, the results vary significantly by rank and race. Tables 1 and
2 show that white women and/or officers are most likely to support assigning
women to the combat arms, so it may not be surprising that whites and officers
were also most likely (at 46 and 52 percent) to believe they could meet
the physical challenges. A white lieutenant stated, "At 5'9" I'm
not exactly petite. I see men allowed the chance to serve in a combat role
who I know I could out-perform." A black NCO challenged the Army's
assumption that men are automatically fit for combat roles because of their
sex: "Just because the Army allows men to enlist in a combat MOS, doesn't
mean a man is more capable because they fail [physical fitness] tests, MOS
proficiency tests, and some are overweight. That's not a description of
combat ready." Roughly half of Hispanic, black and other women of color
believe they would be able to carry out the physical demands of the most
stressful combat MOSs. A black enlisted truck driver said, "If women
want to volunteer for the combat arms, that's on them, because they know
what their bodies can take. I can say I enjoy my MOS and sometimes, I have
to attempt things I know I'm incapable of doing, but I do what I can."
[Table 4 about here]
Women vary somewhat by rank as to whether they would volunteer for a combat
role if the Army permitted it. Overall, however, the great majority would
not volunteer: only 11 percent of enlisted women, 13 percent of NCOs, and
14 percent of officers would do so (N=940). These numbers demonstrate that
support for the voluntary combat option reflects support for a principle
of choice for those who qualify, rather than women's personal intentions
to transfer to combat roles.9
Many Army women agree that serving in combat roles can improve opportunities
for promotion. Some point out, however, that men in noncombat roles face
the same disadvantage in relation to men in combat roles; thus not only
women are limited in this way. (Although men, of course, have the option
to join the combat arms.) Table 4 shows Army women's opinions, by rank,
on whether combat exclusion hurts promotion opportunities for enlisted women
and for officers. My findings show no consensus among military women about
the impact of combat exclusion on their opportunities.
Those most likely to think that combat exclusion
does not limit enlisted women's opportunity are NCOs (43 percent), enlisted
women who have advanced through the lower enlisted ranks. An NCO in intelligence
and communications wrote, "If a soldier knows his or her job and does
it well, they will be promoted on those good merits. I don't believe promotion
relies solely on unit assignment." In contrast, a lieutenant in the
medical field believes that women will be held back, no matter what policy
is adopted: "I'm not sure it is based on combat exclusion. More on
males dominance of the professionthe 'Old Boys Club.'" Across the board,
however, about 50 percent of women of all ranks agreed that exclusion hurts
enlisted women's chances for promotion.
[Table 5 about here]
Officers are more likely than enlisted women and NCOs to feel that combat
exclusion hinders their careers: 61 percent, as opposed to 38 and 49 percent
respectively. Officers feel a greater impact of being excluded from certain
fields because of the nature of the promotion structure:
Career security and promotion to the higher ranks require individual officers
to pass through a series of types of assignments, including various levels
of supervisory responsibility and training (both civilian and military,
general)Deviation from the standard pattern in either nature or timing lowers
promotion chances. Each step has an optimum window of opportunity as a function
of the officer's year group and previous step. Failure to get one's "ticket
punched" at each career station at the appropriate time is hazardous
to one's career (Segal 1990: 168).
Clearly women who are career officers are at a disadvantage when certain
assignments central to the function of the Army (command over groups that
include combat elements) are off-limits to them.
Among women who are not particularly interested in combat roles are those
who wonder about the indirect effect of making those roles available to
women, and might choose to leave the Army on the basis of those concerns.10 One Hispanic enlisted
There's an issue that wasn't touched, and I'm concerned with. Since I volunteered
to serve in the U.S. Army under the present regulations, if these were to
change, say women allowed or required to serve in combat, would I (or any
other female who feels the same way I do) be allowed to terminate the contract
with the Army without counting as dishonorable discharge?
Another option would be to have a "grandmother clause," whereby
women who entered when women were not eligible for combat could not be assigned
involuntarily to combat roles.
One anticipated indirect effect on other servicewomen of a change in the
combat exclusion policy is that a change in the requirements for women on
the Army Physical Fitness Test might follow. Fear of this change stems from
the arguments of opponents of women in combat, who contend that if women
want to be treated equally, they should be required to meet standards equal
to those set for men across the board. This test is routinely conducted
to evaluate soldiers' fitness; it includes two mile timed runs, two minutes
of sit-ups, and two minutes of push-ups. While intended only to measure
fitness and not strength, soldiers consistently treated it as a measure
of physical ability. It is normed by age and gender, and does not vary by
Table 5 shows that women vary by rank on whether
the fitness requirements should be the same or different for men. The majority
of women of all ranks believe that the standards should remain different,
but officers are more likely than enlisted women and NCOs to think they
should be the same (24 percent, compared with 14 and 13 percent respectively).
Some say a difference in standards does not mean that women should always
do less than men, but that each gender would be tested according to its
strengths and weaknesses: "Less pushups for women, less sit-ups for
menphysiological considerations" (from a white NCO). One Hispanic captain
suggested that physical fitness tests should vary by job demands "In
the MOS that I am in, I think that the PT test should have different standards.
The PT standards should not be along the same line as the standards for
infantry. The mission requirements should have an impact." Many women,
such as one Desert Storm veteran, believe that physical limitations should
not affect women in all fields: "Our bodies and limitations are different.
And because we can't run like 18 year old men, our careers shouldn't be
jeopardized!" Another woman, a major, warned against setting unrealistic
standards: "Don't force women to use anabolic steroids to be the same."
DIFFERENCES IN SOCIAL LOCATION BETWEEN RIGHTS-BASED
FEMINIST ACTIVISTS AND MOST ARMY WOMEN
Media coverage and feminist activists lobbying on behalf of military women
in Washington have presented an image of military women who see no difference
between men's and women's abilities and are eager to take on combat roles.
My ethnographic work and the questionnaires used in this study, however,
demonstrate that this image represents only one segment of Army women (most
likely white women and/or officers); dissension exists not only between
men and women, but among women as well.
Army Women on Sexual Difference
Most Army women find sexual difference relevant to the debates about combat
assignment, and therefore believe that advocates who claim this difference
to be irrelevant are detached from the reality of their daily lives. They
do not think, however, that sexual differences apply to everyone in the
same way; therefore they contend that generalizations should not restrict
all members of either gender from acting outside those categories. That
is, even if most women cannot perform certain tasks, those who can do so
should not be excluded. On the other hand, Army women argue that women should
not be forced into roles for which they are unqualified or uninterested
so that gender proportions can be achieved in all fields. Unlike many feminists,
particularly those advocating women in the military, Army women do not view
the acknowledgment of differences between the sexes as necessarily antiwoman.
They make sense of the conflicting information they have received about
the appropriateness of women in combat roles by believing that sexual difference
is moderately relevant.
As shown in Table 1, most Army women think the military should lift restrictions
on women's assignments, and should use physical skills tests, as they do
for other areas, before a soldier is assigned. Army women agree with activists
that gender-based distinctions in work are no longer needed. Yet rather
than pushing to make women subject to the draft or to service in the combat
arms, Army women regard compulsory policies as regressive. They prefer to
work toward a policy whereby no one is forced into a combat role.11
Army women tend not to believe that women could do anything men can do if
only they were socialized differently. They do believe, however, that some
percentage of women will always outperform some percentage of men. They
think assignments should be determined by women's choice, ability, and military
need, not gender. Many do not want to do a disservice to women by assigning
them to jobs they cannot perform successfully, thereby lowering the evaluation
of women's contribution to the service.
During interviews, a number of women said they would prefer that work done
predominantly by women be considered as valuable as work done predominantly
by men. Many reject the idea that "men's work" is necessarily
more challenging or more important than "women's," or that taking
on such work should be their goal. Women who served in overseas operations
pointed out that communication and supply units are often just as crucial
as combat units (if not more) in high-tech missions and peacekeeping operations.
Many Army women I spoke with do not feel that they personally should have
to take on men's traditional jobs, against their wishes or best interests,
to prove someone else's larger point. Feminism, they feel, should not contribute
to devaluing jobs in which women predominate, especially in the military,
where wages for such jobs are not lower than in "men's work."
This perspective exists among feminists, but is not expressed by feminists
lobbying on behalf of military women. Alice Rossi, a prominent feminist,
wrote that cultural determinists
had gotten themselves into an untenable position. Instead of replacing outdated
biological theories with new, accurate knowledge, they were forced to deny
that there are any physiological differences between men and women.Difference
is a biological factwhereas equality is a political, ethical and social
concept. No rule of nature or of social organization says that the sexes
have to be the same or do the same things in order to be social, political,
and economic equals (cited in Degler 1990, 40).
Interviews with Army women and men also suggest that activists should separate
military men from military culture: even though the culture supports misogynist
values, not all men buy into them or are opposed to women in the military.
As noted earlier, activists lobbying for women
in the military are professional women: lawyers, scholars, politicians,
and retired officers. As such, they have much more education, income, and
status than all but a few enlisted women. They may tend to interact more
with officers because they are more similar to officers in class and race.
(Most of the activists are white.) As with officers, physical strength is
unimportant to their occupation; as a result they may undervalue its significance
in other fields. Activists may not value enlisted women's opinions about
physical demands, but may consider these women unenlightened victims of
false consciousness. These differences among women reveal the presence of
something more than male/female conflict, and show that combat roles do
not carry the same risks and rewards for all women.
THE ACTIVIST FRAMING OF THE DEBATE
One black captain commented on the division between those who speak for
servicewomen and Army women themselves: "I think that the female[s]
that [want] the same as men should speak for themselves. And not for all
women." Although most Army women support the option for women to volunteer
for combat roles, they do not agree with their advocates who support the
draft or compulsory assignment to the combat arms for women as a means of
reaching equality with men.
The gap between most Army women and those feminists who claim to be their
advocates is not unique to military women; it reflects problems facing modern
feminism on other fronts. Black feminists have revealed a similar split
between mainstream feminism (on one hand) and working-class and poor women
and women of color on the other. The latter, they report, have often felt
alienated from mainstream feminism throughout much of its history because
of differences in priorities stemming from race and class distinctions:
"We were disappointed and disillusioned when we discovered that white
women in the movement had little knowledge or concern for the problems of
lower class and poor women or the particular problems of non-white women
from all classes (hooks 1981, 188. Also see Davis 1981; Giddings 1982; hooks
1984). The career-centered nature of the activist agenda for military women
has also been apparent in mainstream feminism: "Women from lower class
groups had no difficulty recognizing that the social equality women's liberationists
talked about equated careerism and class mobility with liberation. They
also knew who would be exploited in the service of this liberation"
(hooks 1984, 60).
Rights-based feminist activists reject arguments for women's exclusion from
combat as essentialist or determinist because of the emphasis on gender
differences. Therefore they may tend to assume that Army women's assertions
that men and women differ and in some cases should fill different roles
are based on ignorance or false consciousness. The lives of activists and
most Army women are situated differently, however; as a result, some issues
are more relevant for one group than for the other, for reasons related
to occupation, class, and race. In the following section I address those
differences and why they pertain to this topic.
Rank Differences among Army Women
The advantages and disadvantages of taking on a combat role weigh differently
for officers than for enlisted personnel. Officer women are more likely
to experience the limitations of not serving in combat roles, and therefore
are represented by civilian activists who are attempting to secure access
to those roles. Enlisted women are likely to regard combat roles as more
burdensome than beneficial, and to have other priorities in their lives.
Although enlisted women are likely to agree with some officers that women
who qualify should have the right to enter the combat arms, they are likely
to object to those who contend that men and women have the same capabilities
and that women should be drafted and assigned to MOSs on the same terms
as men are now.
Charles Moskos first noted that enlisted women and officers differed on
the issue of combat when he conducted an ethnography of women soldiers stationed
in Honduras. He found that
Many of these officers had given priority to a military career over marriage
and family plans and now realized that their careers were handicapped by
the female combat exclusion rule.Enlisted womenwere less subject to disappointment.[They]
generally did not see themselves in long-term army roles, especially in
nontraditional assignments.Enlisted women foresaw their eventual life's
meaning in family or in work outside of the military (1985, 31-32).
Combat roles are quite different for officers than for enlisted soldiers.
For officers, such roles are generally extensions of skills they already
employ: leadership of a structure that includes combat units, or piloting
in offensive missions as opposed to defensive or support roles. For enlisted
combat roles, however, women would have to take on entirely new tasks to
be trained for the infantry, tank crews, and combat engineering. In the
latter positions, which will likely be the last to be opened to women, concerns
over physical strength and intimate contact between the sexes would be most
relevant. As combat soldiers on the front lines of a war, enlisted women
also would be more likely to die than would commanding officers.
Rank differences have class implications as well, which tend to structure
All officers, who account for 16 percent of Army women, have college degrees,
are more likely than enlisted women to be career soldiers, and are predominantly
white (75 percent) (DEOMI 1993). They are less likely to have children either
upon entering the service or during their career, and are more likely to
believe their command opportunities are limited because they are not allowed
to command combat units. Thus, for officers, the benefits of serving in
a combat role outweigh the drawbacks.
Enlisted soldiers, who make up 84 percent of Army women, typically enter
with a high school diploma (though many may take some college classes during
their enlistment) and are disproportionately black (47 percent) (DEOMI 1993).
They are less likely to make the military a career, to hit a glass ceiling,
or to feel that they are unfairly deprived of the benefits of serving in
the combat arms. They are also likely to enter with children and to have
children while in the service. Enlisted jobs traditionally considered "men's
work" can be very physical; as revealed in the preceding section, many
women think they would not be successful in jobs even more physically demanding
than their present occupations. For many enlisted women, the benefits of
serving in a combat role are not self-evident.
Enlisted women are more likely to focus on other priorities that are far
more relevant for them, such as gender inequities in health care and child
care. As one black NCO commented in her survey, "All females are not
the same, for example health, strength and family responsibilities/commitment."
Two Gulf War veterans had other occupational concerns; they asked me why
all the emphasis was on opening combat roles, when they had to fight to
be allowed to perform their assigned jobs during the war because of vague,
gender-based "risk rules" restricting their movement.
The women I interviewed often perceived rank differences on these issues.
Some enlisted women described officers as "living in their own world"
or being "on another planet." A black enlisted woman was not alone
in asserting that, "Female superiors feel as if they have to prove
themselves and normally treat lower enlisted females unfairly." Some
women officers acknowledged that they were stricter with women, in part
because they felt that they were being scrutinized themselves by their commanders,
who were on the lookout for favoritism. Officers, however, sometimes view
some enlisted women with dismay, illustrated by one white Captain: "In
the lower enlisted ranks especially, there are too many single mothers,
pregnancies, poor performance, etc." Several officers expressed concern
that such behavior lowers the status of military women overall because some
men generalize the behavior of these women to all military women.
While rank differences have been at least acknowledged by scholars (Moskos
1985; Stiehm 1989), these differences do not work their way into the activists'
agenda or portrayal of military women. The distinction between the nature
of combat roles for officers and enlisted is also absent from the public
debates. Instead, military women are represented as unanimous in demanding
access to the combat arms as a means of career enhancement and a path to
Race Differences among Army Women
Race differences also influence women's positions. These are intertwined
to some degree with rank differences, as suggested by the underrepresentation
of women of color among officers and the overrepresentation among the enlisted
ranks. Out of 71,985 women in the Army, 47 percent are white, 44 percent
are black, 4 percent are Hispanic, and the remaining 5 percent are other
women of color. Army men (524,300), in contrast, are 62 percent white, 28
percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent "other race"
categories (DEOMI 1993).Thus both black men and black women are overrepresented
in the Army, because blacks make up only 12 percent of the civilian population;
Hispanics are under represented, as they account for 9 percent of civilians
(Rosenfeld and Culbertson 1992).
Because class intersects with race, black and Hispanic women may be more
likely than white women to depend on their military service to support them
and their households. Black women in the Army, followed by Hispanic women,
are more likely than white women to re-enlist and to be single parents (Moore
1991). Hispanic women are likely to have family members other than spouses
and children living with them (Moore 1991). All women of color are likely
to have the added burden of dealing with racism both inside and outside
the service. Perhaps the effects of race and class and gender are reflected
in a black NCO's assessment of why black women are less likely than whites
to be interested in combat roles: "We've suffered enough already in
life, why would we want to take on anything more?"
Women of color also have less reason to believe that lifting combat exclusion
rules will result in equality for women. The history of blacks' service
in the military particularly during times of war (beginning with the Revolutionary
War) is consistently marked by the hope that their service will earn them
respect and equal treatment both in the service and by American society
(Moore 1993, 1995; Terry 1984; Westheider forthcoming). Sadly, that history
is also marked by disappointment when such aspirations were not realized.
Research on the experiences of women of color in the armed forces is quite
limited. Historical accounts of black women's military service have surfaced,
but no recent studies reflect the issues faced today by black women. For
example, some black women face accusations that they have won their achievements
only because they count as both blacks and women in equal opportunity evaluations
of their unit. One woman began to cry as she told me how offended she was
by the notion that "Black women have it made" (an opinion I also
heard in interviews with non-blacks). In defense of her view, she told her
personal story of getting everything except "her way" in job assignments
and deployment overseas. Although race and gender variables appear in quantitative
tables of equal opportunity surveys, more ethnographic studies are needed
to explain the context behind the numbers.
Historical studies on Hispanic women in the military are virtually lacking.
The few existing surveys find that Hispanics often respond more like whites
than like blacks (Rosenfeld 1994, Rosenfeld and Culbertson 1992). Reports
from soldiers and my own observations in the field suggest that when blacks
and whites socialize separately, Hispanics may appear in either group but
rarely form their own. Hispanics do not always feel that they benefit from
equal opportunity efforts; one enlisted woman wrote, "I'm hispanic,
we get the end of anything due to being a minority in a predominantly Black
and White Army." Another Hispanic woman said she felt that Hispanics
are subject to more discrimination than blacks because "a lot of Hispanics
have an accent on top of a visual difference." Nothing has been written
about other women of color, whose numbers are quite small (e.g., 516 Native
Americans and 1,524 Asian Americans in the entire Army) (DEOMI 1993).
The distinctions among women of color presented
here and in the scarce prior research, teach us
that military women of color cannot all be lumped
together and regarded as thinking alike. Such
distinctions should be investigated further in
future research. My data do suggest, however,
that minority women and/or enlisted women are
more likely to have overriding priorities that
make serving in the combat arms the least of their
concerns or even an undesirable option.
The feminist activists' manner of arguing the
case for expanding women's roles in the military may not be the most effective
way to persuade members of the military organization in which they seek
change. Indeed, the activists' arguments may have alienated the very constituency
for which they claim to speak, costing them legitimacy among those who should
be their allies.
ACTIVISTS, ARMY WOMEN, AND A NEW AGENDA
First, framing the debate as an issue of women versus men alienates men
who would support the expansion of military women's roles, as well as women
who find allies in men. By representing a minority view of military women
among the view of all military women, activists have alienated women who
disagree and who feel they have no alternative way to voice their concerns.
Consequently, to military leaders who are aware of divergent viewpoints
among their troops, the activists appear to be out of touch with Army life.
Second, by dismissing arguments about differences in strength between genders
with references to Amazons and Olympic athletes, rights-based activists
have left military women to explain and manage their physical limitations
on their own. Army women would find integration easier if women could do
what men can do, but many are reminded constantly that this is not the case
in their current occupation.
Third, activists who argue that women can manage hand-to-hand combat with
an enemy often simultaneously portray military women as crippled by sexual
harassment. Many male soldiers treated these situations as comparable and
contradictory. In one Los Angeles Times story (19 July, 1992), for
example, a Navy pilot commented that "the message from Tailhookwhere
half of the victims were naval officerswas that women cannot defend themselves."
Thus, opponents of expanding women's roles find it incongruous to argue
that women are helpless victims of male harassment, but that they could
defeat a man in combat. While this comparison is clearly problematic (presumably
we do not expect women to use the same tactics to deal with a life-threatening
attack from an enemy that they have prepared to meet as they would against
surprise attacks from men who are supposedly on their side). Such simultaneous
agendas, however, work against one another in the minds of soldiers who
do not carry the analysis beyond the initial connection and have not heard
counter arguments (other than the ones I offer during the interviews).
When activists discuss sexual harassment and the combat exclusion policy,
they usually argue that harassment would decrease if women had the same
policy as men because women would then be viewed as equal contributors.
Because I detected that women rejected this reasoning, I added a question
to a later wave of surveys asking: "How would opening combat roles
to women affect the amount of sexual harassment in the military?" Of
the 472 responses from women, 61 percent said sexual harassment would increase,
28 percent said it would make little difference, 2 percent said sexual harassment
would decrease, and 9 percent were unsure. (Men's responses were virtually
identical.) Army women tended to see harassment as either irrelevant to
women's standing, or as resistance toward their presence that would only
increase as they entered the most elite of male bastions. (See Miller 1995
for elaboration of this connection.)
Fourth, and a more subtle point, feminists' arguments for integrating women
into the military rest primarily on the demand for equal rights of women
as individuals. Yet it may be problematic to argue for individual rights
in an organization where even the most privileged members have sacrificed
some of their rights for the good of the military as a whole. This organization
is particularly unwilling to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of individual
rights because the possible stakes are life and death, not reduced profit
margins. For this reason the armed forces have justified excluding people
from service because of their age, weight, and mental and physical ability;
they have closed certain MOSs, such as piloting, to those with color blindness
or less than perfect vision. The problematic nature of relying solely on
civil rights arguments in the military also emerges in the debate about
allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces (see Miller
1994). As noted earlier, women initially were allowed to join the military
because the leaders viewed their participation as necessary to the war effort,
not as a concession based on demands for equal rights.
Finally, virtually no research has examined how military women may contribute
uniquely to their workplace, although it is noted frequently that women
enter the service with higher mental and aptitude test scores than men.
Rights-based feminists downplay gender differences because arguments based
on difference are used to exclude women from heavy-labor MOSs and to channel
them into administrative work. During my interviews, however, soldiers described
how women contribute to nontraditional worksites as well. One man I interviewed
was in charge of heavy equipment maintenance, including tanks. He remarked
that when women were placed on his team, they took better care of the tools
and equipment than the men, worked more carefully at their tasks, and kept
their areas cleaner and better organized. The men on the team also acquired
these habits, thus improving the status of the work unit overall. Research
on women in the trades parallels these findings, and could be used to support
the contention that women are a valuable asset in nontraditional fields.
This body of work shows consistently that although women sometimes are slower
than men at completing their work, they work more safely and more accurately,
and deliver a superior product (Martin 1988; Walshok 1981). Arguing from
the viewpoint of increased performance is not only more appealing to the
military; it also improves women's image and is harder to refute. Without
favorable evaluation of women's work in nontraditional fields, initiatives
to place women in the combat arms appear to opponents as an affirmative
action move unconcerned with women's qualifications or impact on the unit.
The problem with feminist advocacy on behalf
of women in the armed forces is thus two-fold. First, while claiming to
represent the views of military women, activists actually represent only
the policy preferences of women whose life circumstances are most similar
to their own and whose beliefs meet the needs of a more general feminist
agenda. Inadvertently, thus, feminists have alienated many women they believe
they represent. Second, the feminist framing of the debate is neither tailored
to fit the specific nature of the military as an organization (one which
does not value individualist perspectives) nor the particular circumstances
of the lives of military women.
By Rank, Army Women's Opinions On The Combat
Many Army women feel that they are misrepresented by the feminist activists.
Army women who believed they had no avenue for communicating their views
were eager to register their protests through my survey. These women interpret
feminist activists' position to mean that they do not know or care much
about enlisted and/or minority women's lives or interests. Several Army
women asked me who had introduced the issue of sending women into combat,
because neither they nor any of the women they know have any interest in
changing the combat exclusion policy. Moreover, military women who find
allies in men and military men who favor women's filling any role for which
they can qualify resent the assumption that men are "the enemy."
Ironically, the putative advocates of women in the military may have forfeited
the support of even those Army men and women who agree with their policy
Dorothy Smith (1987) calls for a feminist sociology that grounds theory
in women's everyday experiences. The consequence of ignoring women's spheres,
she argues, is the production of knowledge that is alienating and detached
from the lives of real women. My investigation of Army women reveals that
this population is hardly the monolithic group that public activists and
media coverage would have us believe. I suspect that variation in opinion
also exists between services, since they vary in occupational composition,
percentage of women present, and representation of women by such factors
as race and rank.
The women's movement was founded to give women more choices. Feminists'
representation of women in the military shows that activists who promote
policy not generated by the affected women may alienate those women. If
this movement is to progress toward greater representation, it must advance
beyond merely offering women a second prescribed path. As one feminist scholar
points out, "Feminists can ill afford to adopt a corrective strategy
of silencing other female voices. An imposed unity of correct views can
never be an appropriate goal for a movement devoted above all to the awakening
of female consciousness" (Kay 1990, 85).
The dilemmas of representation found in the Army case parallel those in
mainstream feminism, which concern criticisms by women of color and/or poor
and working-class women. Mainstream feminists claim to welcome "feminisms,"
but many women still feel excluded. While working to "add on"
class bias and racism to their agenda, more highly privileged feminists
face an even greater challenge in deciding what to do when minority and
working-class women's views clash with their own. As other groups voice
their concerns, feminist activists will no longer be able to ignore those
groups' opinions or to attach a label of "false consciousness"
without revealing their own class and race bias. When agendas clash, how
can one group not suppress feminists working toward conflicting goals? In
the words of bell hooks, "while feminists have increasingly given 'lip
service' to the idea of diversity, we have not developed strategies of communication
and inclusion that allow for the successful enactment of this feminist vision
Feminist scholars and activists must avoid being repelled by women's arguments
that rest partly on biological difference. Certainly, physical differences
between men and women have often supported reductionist and determinist
arguments which are used to justify existing systems that oppress women.
Army women, however, discuss physical differences without accepting reductionism
or determinism. This understanding allows them to adapt some elements of
the workplace to their abilities or body type without shame or a sense of
Their pragmatic frameworks for understanding gender point to new directions
for feminist action.
To dismiss the relevance of physical demands in the workplace as regressive
or as evidence of false consciousness is to reject much that Army women
have to offer about surviving in a hostile environment. Feminist biologist
Lynda Birke suggests that the next step for feminism is
to move away from reductionism and to think about "non-reductionist"
approaches to biology, in which the organism, or other biological unit,
is seen in terms of a dialectical relationship with its environmentthis
kind of approach allows for greater complexity and flexibility, as well
as the possibility that the "biology" may itself be changed as
a function of that unit's environmental and historical context (1986, 169).
Deborah Rhode has come to believe that "To pronounce women either the
same or different leaves men as the standard of analysis. Further progress
toward gender equality requires an alternative framework that focuses not
on difference per se, but on the disadvantages that follow from it"
(1990, 204). Rhodes suggests that we develop an analytic tool "that
emphasizes not biological distinctions but the consequences of recognizing
them in particular social, political, and economic circumstances" (1990,
210). Opinions expressed by Army women also demand that we re-assess whether
the division of labor between men and women must be equal in all fields
if women are to be equal citizens.
The dilemma of choosing between a consistent and liberal rhetoric and the
complex and often contradictory preferences of real women is not unique
to this field. As noted earlier, the ERA was likely lost when anti-feminists
forced feminists to declare the highly unpopular but concordant position
that women should be drafted and assigned to combat the same as men (Holm
1992; Mansbridge 1986; Marsden 1986). More recent scholarship has
argued that pro-choice rhetoric about the nature of the fetus may make the
position easier to defend, but does not address the real conflicts many
pro-choice women experience about abortion. Thus pro-choice rhetoric has
become increasingly alienating (Avalos-Bock 1995; Wolf 1995). Feminists
from other countries have found mainstream American feminism less relevant
for them because of its distinctively American liberal foundation. They
believe that its scholarship and activism often prioritize a particular,
class-relevant, Western political agenda over the concerns of many women's
actual lives: "We want to emphasize concrete problems not ideological
attitudes" (Anna Hradilkova, a Czech feminist, cited in Elshtain 1995).
So while as feminists we may wish to discuss women's physiology under the
conditions of equal socialization, in pursuing a policy agenda we must be
attentive to the abilities of women who are in the service today.
To resolve such conflicts feminist activists could take one of at least
two positions. First, they could abandon the claim of accurately representing
the interests of a majority of military women. They could argue that what
military women want is irrelevant; and that we did not poll men before deciding
on a policy for them. Much like the Army claims that individual preferences
must be subsumed for needs of national security, so too could feminists
claim that the goal of equality of women and men outweighs individual priorities.
From this position, feminists could continue to argue that women should
be as subject to the draft and assigned to the combat arms as men, although
they could add their support for realistic and relevant strength standards
for heavy labor military occupations.
Another option for activists is to embrace the multiplicity of women's views,
and accept a middle ground position as a compromise or even stepping stone.
Most Army women would support a policy that allows women to volunteer for
the combat arms if they qualify, but would not involuntarily assign them.
Rather than reject the voluntary option as "unequal" with men,
feminists could accept it as more equal than the current policy, and hope
that women's performance will help break ground for the future. Again, any
feminist position will have to support physical entrance requirements to
prevent the assignment of women who would not be capable at their jobs,
and to illustrate that all men by virtue of their sex do not meet the standards
either. Moreover, this policy will prevent a backlash against military women
from the perception that the standards will be lowered to put people's lives
at risk for sake of affirmative action. This intermediate position would
indeed represent the interests and preferences of most Army women. It would
also help bridge the gap between activist leaders and Army women.
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Army Women's Responses, by Rank and Race,
to the Question "If the draft were reinstated,
which of the following policies would you support?"
Enlisted NCOs Officers
I am satisfied with the
present Army regulations
that exclude women from 20% 23% 16%
direct combat roles.
I think that women who
want to volunteer for the 77 73 71
combat arms should be
allowed to do so.
I think that women
should be treated exactly
like men and serve in the 3 4 13
combat arms just like men.
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (509) (308) (149)
Enlisted NCOs Officers
Women should not 35% 28% 20%
Women should be drafted, but 26 34 28
not eligible for combat roles.
Women should be drafted and 25 27 43
eligible for combat roles.
Not sure 14 11 9
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (506) (307) (147)
Army Women's Response, by Rank and Race,
to the Question
"Do you think you are physically capable
to serve in a combat role in the infantry or
Hispanic Black White Other
Women should not 46% 34% 24% 29%
Women should be drafted, but 22 30 28 26
not eligible for combat roles.
Women should be drafted and 24 23 39 27
eligible for combat roles.
Not sure 8 13 9 18
___ ___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100% 100%
(N) (41) (477) (351) (66)
Enlisted NCOs Officers
Yes 31% 36% 52%
No 54 45 34
Not Sure 15 19 14
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (512) (309) (149)
Hispanic Black White Other
Yes 34% 31% 46% 31%
No 56 52 40 44
Not Sure 10 17 14 25
___ ___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100% 100%
(N) (41) (480) (356) (68)
Army Women's Opinion, by Rank, on Whether
Combat Exclusion Hurts Promotion Opportunities
Do you believe the present policy of combat
exclusion for women hurts promotion opportunities
for enlisted women in the Army?
Enlisted NCOs Officers
Strongly agree or agree 50% 52% 50%
Strongly disagree or disagree 35 43 39
Not sure 16 5 11
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (515) (311) (150)
Do you believe the present policy of combat
exclusion for women hurts promotion opportunities
for women officers in the Army?
Enlisted NCOs Officers
Strongly agree or agree 38% 49% 61%
Strongly disagree or disagree 38 34 35
Not sure 25 17 4
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (515) (308) (149)
Army Women's Opinion, by Rank, on the Question
"Should the Army Physical Fitness Test
minimum physical standards for men and women
soldiers be exactly the same, or should they
remain different as they are now?"
Enlisted NCOs Officers
Should be the same 13% 14% 24%
Should be different 83 85 72
Not sure 5 2 4
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
(N) (512) (310) (149)
Total N = 971
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