A military riddled with gender stereotypes

    For decades, women have worked to close the gender gap. While we have made great strides, the military is a world where time churns at a very different pace. Though military women are currently allowed to serve in over 90 percent of all career fields in the armed forces, they are still barred from combat.

    But what does serving in combat really mean? In this new age of war, combat boundaries can no longer be as easily defined as they were in World War II or in Vietnam. “Every day soldiers, including women, come under enemy fire,” the New York Times said of the current Iraq War. Up until only a couple decades ago, women typically held nursing or support positions, but today they can be found crossing into combat zones. Forty thousand women in the Gulf War served in key positions, forming an important support buttress for the other troops in the theater. Women in the Gulf War, as stated by retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Barbara Wilson, “flew refueling planes, flew troop transport aircraft and helicopters … marched through mine fields, maintained aircraft, guarded perimeters, accepted the surrender of Iraqi soldiers and subsequently pulled guard duty. Women were taken prisoner and some lost their lives in the Gulf — is that not being in combat?”

    The Department of Defense prohibits women from participating in “direct ground combat,” but what exactly does this constitute and why can’t women be allowed in these positions?

    In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to join the Navy, Navy Reserves and the Marine Corps. Since the end of the male draft in 1973, the proportion of women in the military has climbed from 1.6 percent to 14.5 percent in 2005. Despite these measures, it took nearly 40 years for the first military woman to make a parachute jump and over 50 years for the first woman to command a Navy ship. It is safe to say that the progress of women in the military is steady, but also slow.

    There are a number of different arguments that politicians use to explain why women should not allowed in direct combat positions. The most common argument is that women are simply not as physically strong as men. While there is a small percentage of women that could meet and possibly surpass the physical standards that are set for men, most would still lag behind.

    But is the physical component of combat readiness the pivotal factor in excluding women? This is a brain against brawn argument: It has been scientifically proven that while women may not be able to build as much muscle as men, they are calmer under stressful situations and are just as capable of learning the weapon techniques taught to an infantryman. In fact, when it comes to fighter pilots, women’s bodies actually hold a physiological advantage over men’s. Gravitational forces push down on the body and overcome the ability of the heart to pump blood to the brain, but since women have a smaller body mass and therefore a shorter distance to travel between the heart and the brain, their bodies are better able to counteract these G-forces.

    Psychological and social factors are also used to explain why females are better left in support positions. Some of the arguments include: Since men have an “inherent nature to protect women” they will dote on the women if they are wounded; women will disrupt the male bonding; and women will be more susceptible to sexual assault by both their comrades and by the enemy if they are captured.

    Since these arguments are results of gender stereotyping, they are always subject to change. Throughout history, women have proved to be an integral part of our military and can only serve to better the forces by their involvement in combat. Today there are “lioness” groups in Iraq — all-female units that speak with the Iraqi women and deal with gender-sensitive issues.

    It doesn’t seem to be a question of whether women are able to fulfill these “combat” positions, but whether the military and our society are ready to accept this and how, exactly, we should integrate them into our combat forces. The hype following Jessica Lynch’s capture on March 23, 2003, shows, without a doubt, that our society weighs the death and capture of a female soldier more heavily than that of her male counterparts.

    Gender inequality and the stereotypes that stem from it are conditioned by our society. The country is not ready to see women die en masse because, despite the feminist movement, we still see females as dainty, more vulnerable, and possibly more incompetent. If we are going to further integrate women into combat positions, the military needs to develop an action plan that utilizes women for all their strengths. Over time, with the slow incorporation of females into our military, the evolution and elimination of gender stereotypes might trickle down into American society at large.

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