The Military (Wo)Man

By Caitlin Panarella

When someone pictures a soldier, what comes to mind?  “Google Images” answers that question largely with photos of male figures, seldom interrupted by those of women.  The results indicate a persisting archetype in American culture— that of the strong protector as exclusively male.

Today, women make up roughly 15% of the military, a statistic that has been hard-won in the face of widespread criticism.  Historically, women’s role during wartime is to manage affairs on the home front while their husbands and sons fight in battle, an image best exemplified by the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter.  Today, the proposition of women in combat is still met with censure and objections for reasons ranging from combat effectiveness to unit cohesion to military readiness.

On December 3, 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared a change in policy allowing women to fully participate in military combat, opening 200,000 jobs that had previously been restricted on the basis of gender.  Many female soldiers advocated for this revision, as most high-ranking officers start in combat positions, meaning that barring women from these positions hinders their advancement.  Obama stands by this measure, stating that he does not want to “field half a team” or have a military that “starts with the premise that women can’t do something.”  Physical standards and tests remain unchanged; the only difference made is that women now have the opportunity to pass or fail the tests.

The idea that a woman’s presence in combat would hinder effectiveness or “harm unit cohesion” traces its roots back to viewing women as sexual objects.  A woman is often viewed as an interruption, an intrusion into the boys’ club.  The notion that women and men working together is impossible, that gender is an unconquerable barrier to “cohesion,” is infantile.  Men and women are capable of having relationships that have nothing to do with attraction, and any lesser expectation underestimates both of their professional capacities.  

The image of “soldier” as male presents problems to women after their service as much as it does before.  Out of all post-9/11 veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, 17.4% are women, according to a News21 study.  Despite these historically great numbers, women veterans struggle to receive the same level of recognition and care as their male counterparts, from the VA as well as from employers.  The average unemployment rate for female veterans in 2012 was 12.5%, three points higher than the average for male veterans.  In addition, society’s skepticism surrounding the contribution of female soldiers leads to their trauma and injuries being taken less seriously.

Both men and women voice concerns about women working in combat and special forces, many of them valid.  However, America must confront the broader issue of redefining words with historically male connotations, such as “warrior” and “strength,” and expanding the meanings’ boundaries to include all genders.  The service a woman performs must not be for a country that denies her the respect due to her as a soldier.