Hearing that the U.S. military is finally going to allow women in combat is something akin to hearing that the Berlin Wall came down. Something that had seemed so fixed and immovable is all of a sudden just…not…there.
The military led the way in racial integration back in the 1970s, and it is finally showing its willingness to get with the times and become a leader on gender equality as well.
So why don’t I feel like celebrating?
It’s true that women were already on the frontlines, doing dangerous work without the training or the equipment, and, importantly, without earning the credit.
And it’s no secret that the quickest way to advance in the military is to be recognized as a brilliant combat veteran.
Women who never officially saw combat were always held back at promotion time.
So in that regard, this is going to be very positive change that will help put many more fine women soldiers into the promotion pipeline.
In terms of wanting to do everything possible to generally increase women’s equality of opportunity and compensation, the broad example of the military, with its huge payroll, will make a difference.
So why am I feeling ambivalent?
I guess this just feels like one more example of women joining the male-dominated status quo and living up to patriarchal models and expectations, rather than women being able to bring our own different-but-equal perspectives to bear on the playing field.
Does “equality” mean that women have to conform to the social structures into which we were born and bred, which have always been, at least as far as any of us can remember, male-dominated?
This question has been the subject of extensive, impassioned debate among feminists over the past 20 years or so, ever since I entered the fray in the late 1980s.
Are women “essentially” different from men, or are we all humans, the same inside, just with different bodily accessories?
It is dangerous, assert many feminists, to argue that there is something essentially different about men and women, especially if you want to argue that men are essentially more aggressive and competitive, while women are essentially more nurturing and collaborative.
To assert this puts us just one step away from saying that women make better teachers and nurses and mothers, while men make better soldiers and stockbrokers and lawyers.
No feminist would want to say that, at least not while we live in a patriarchal society that puts a much greater value on soldiers, stockbrokers and lawyers than on people in the caretaking, nurturing professions.
Having pondered this long and hard over many years, I am convinced that gender identity is not an either/or proposition, but rather a spectrum.
That is, we are not 100% women or 100% men, but have some of the characteristics of both, to differing degrees. Depending on our social context, we move ourselves along the spectrum, seeking approval and rewards.
We all have it in us to call on whichever side of our nature, the masculine or the feminine, is most needed in the moment.
Women can be socialized to become tough soldiers, just as men can be socialized to become tender, loving fathers.
It’s no accident that mama bears have the reputation of being the most fearsome creature on earth if their cubs are endangered; I know as a mother I have felt an incredible level of aggression rising in me when I’ve felt my little ones threatened.
Yes, women can fight.
We can kill.
We can take orders, and we can dish them out, too.
But I hope that by fully integrating the military, from top to bottom, we will begin to have a subtle effect on the culture.
I hope that just as women in the military are encouraged to cultivate their masculine sides, they may also begin to allow and encourage men to let their feminine sides show up for duty a little more often.
We are learning slowly that winning wars is not just about overwhelming force, shock and awe; it’s more importantly about winning hearts and minds, about making a lasting positive impact in a territory that we are forced to occupy militarily.
Without this crucial component to war-making, the peace will never last.
As someone who is deeply non-violent, I believe that the purpose of war should always be to create the conditions for long-lasting and productive peace.
Women and men in military service who honor the full spectrum of their gendered natures, from masculine warrior to feminine peacemaker, will best be able to make this vision a reality.