Assessing the Arguments Against GI Jane: The Combat Exclusion for Women Part I

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

As American troops trickle back from Iraq and-eventually- Afghanistan, it seems like the perfect time to examine the lessons learned from the last decade of warfare. One of the policies requiring a review is the combat exclusion for women. Although most positions within the US forces have been opened up to women over the last 50 years, there has beenadamant efforts to sustain rules which prohibit women from joining the so-called front lines of conflict in combat roles. Many of the remaining justifications for this exclusion are based on expired research (or no research at all), and outdated or irrelevant assumptions about military operations (including the idea of a clear front line).

First, some quick facts: over 130 women have died in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom; women are excluded from 9% of all army roles, and 30% of active duty roles and 38% of marine positions are closed to women; two servicewomen have been awarded the Silver Star- the military’s third highest honor for valor in combat.
The arguments for sustaining the exclusion can be divided into three categories: physical standards, the moral argument, and the cohesion hypothesis.

The focus on physical standards is a legitimate one. Women and men are just different physically, particularly in terms of body fat and upper body strength- not to mention the fact that women menstruate and get pregnant. There are no feminist arguments that can undo these differences. There are a couple of worthwhile considerations here: 1. standards have increasingly been adjusted in trainingto recognize the difference in male and female bodies 2. there is growing research indicating that a single standard isn’t necessary for operational effectiveness 3. some research shows that tasks can be adapted (using two people to lift, for example) to allow women to succeed.

The second argument against women in combat is less tangible and certainly impossible to measure- the moral argument. This is the position that women simply ‘don’t belong’ in combat. It may seem like this would be irrelevant to policy-makers; however, in senate hearings and in much of the literature on the combat exclusion this position emerges. A quote from Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, a former Air Force chiefof staff summarizes this position, “I just can’t get over this feeling of old men ordering young women into combat…I have a gut-based hang-up there. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense in every way. I apologize for it.” The moral argument is an important one to take notice of. Research and the interviewee’s response indicate the existence of deeply embedded beliefs about men and women’s valid place during conflict. In many ways it is difficult to disentangle the moral argument from the physical standards and the cohesion hypothesis as these embedded beliefs seem to inform and influence much of the debates surrounding women’s participation in combat.

The final, and perhaps most significant, argument for keeping women out of combat roles is thecohesion argument. Or, what I call the cohesion hypothesis. According to this position, the presence of women affects the emotional bonds, friendships, and trust amongst troops and therefore jeopardizes the overall effectiveness of military units. The cohesion hypothesis is used by other defense forces across the world, and was also used to support Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There are a couple of difficulties with the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is difficult to define and measure. In military scholarship it is defined as anything from commitment to a shared mission, trust, bonds, to ‘liking’ one another. As a result, it has become nearly impossible to test the cohesion hypothesis conclusively. 2. partially as a result of disparate definitions and partially as a result of the lack of test population, research on cohesion is all over the map when it comes to combat cohesion women.

RAND did a large study on women’s impact on cohesion in non-combat units, concluding that it was largely leadership, not the presence of women, that impacted cohesion. Despite some research indicating that women don’t spoil cohesion, it is impossible to conclusively determine if women would spoil cohesion in combat units. As the 1992 Presidential Commission looking at women in military found, “[t]here are no authoritative military studies of mixed-gender ground combat cohesion, since available cohesion research has been conducted among male-only ground combat units.”

The arguments against so-called GI Janes seem to defy the reality that women have been and are operating in dangerous, physically demanding roles in the US forces. Arguments about cohesion and standards were used to exclude African Americans and homosexuals from the US forces. These arguments were dropped and largely discredited as soon as policies changed, yet they continue to be used to exclude women from many positions with the US forces. Is the US military ready to open all positions to women? Will the removal of the combat exclusion be on the table for policy makers over the next 5 years?

Best exam question EVER!

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

I know it is hard to believe, but while most of the academic world is enjoying the last few weeks of university break, down under in Kiwi-land we’re in the thick of the academic year. This year I tried out some new essay questions for my Gender and Post-Conflict Development and Feminist International Relations courses and I have to say- I created the best essay question ever. The suspense is killing you right? Here it is:

You’ve been asked to help create a realistic video game that illustrates women’s experiences of war and insecurity. Referring to readings covered in class, what types of activities, challenges, and events would you include in the game? How do you think the public would respond to your game?

The best part about this question has been the incredible debates and discussions it created in class and the amazing answers students came up with. I had to share a couple.

One student designed the game to follow a family forced to flee their village. The family faces numerous challenges at each level of the game, including finding food and daily necessities through the black market, hiding from rebel attacks, and eventually joining and adapting to life in a refugee camp.

Another student created a female soldier character that survives war by joining in atrocities such as amputations. In the last phase of the game the player has to find a way to get included in the disarmament process- at the disarmament camps the female soldier character has to avoid sexual abuse and physical violence. Another student gives the player the option to choose from the following characters: a woman caught in a civil war in East Africa and a Western woman fighting within a peacekeeping unit. Both women face different sets of obstacles- including the threat of sexual violence from their comrades.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The question was meant to be thought provoking (and quite frankly was a last ditch effort to create an exam that I thought might be more interesting to grade!). There were no limits to the ideas on how to create a game, but when it came to thinking about how audiences would respond to such a ‘realistic’ video games students were less enthusiastic. I guess it is worth asking: Would a truly realistic war video game, one that represented men and women’s experiences of war- complete with sexual violence, food scarcity, amputations, and refugee flows- flop? No answers here, but would love to start a discussion. Or to hear what your video game would look like.

The Difference Between Feminist Politicians and Politicians with Breasts: a response to Naomi Wolf

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

Naomi Wolf recently posted a blog on Al Jazeera entitled “America’s Reactionary Feminists: what do Palin and Bachmann have that make them so appealing to the American public?” I don’t doubt that this is an interesting question. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the confusing and simplistic answer Wolf provided- particularly the discussion around right wing feminism.

It may be worth taking a step back to ask why female politicians who do not identify as feminists continually get categorized as one. Surely we must be beyond the ‘woman=feminist’ discussion? Sadly, apparently no.

First, the scoop on where Palin and Bachmann stand on feminism: Palin wasn’t a feminist, then she was. She changed her stance on the term and now identifies with it- largely equating the term with her ‘rogue’ approach to politics not her anti-abortion, anti-social safety net, and her support for cuts to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Bachmann has made it more clear that she is NOT a feminist; instead, calling herself pro-woman and pro-man (hmm).

Back to Wolf. Let’s just ignore her references to the two women as tigresses, soccer and hockey moms for now and get to her central argument, which is that there are two reasons Palin and Bachmann are attractive to American voters.

First, Wolf argues that these two candidates are able to project the same emotional populist demagoguery (her words, not mine) that other popular figures like Malcom X and Joe McCarthy did. Truthfully, I’m not sure where Wolf is going with this point- can we put Palin, Bachmann and Malcom X in the same category??- so I’m not going to dwell on it. Instead, I’ll focus on her second point, which is that their popularity is due to “a serious historical misreading of feminism.” She explains “Because feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was articulated via the institutions of the left…there is an assumption that feminism itself must be leftist. In fact, feminism is philosophically as much in harmony with conservative, and especially libertarian, values – and in some ways even more so.” She goes on to claim that “the core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left” and that “even if they themselves would reject the feminist label. In the case of Palin – and especially that of Bachmann – we ignore the wide appeal of right-wing feminism at our peril.”

It is hard to know which feminism Wolf is talking about. Maybe liberal feminism- which does emphasize institutions, equality, quotas, and choice- but certainly the various black, radical, and Marxist feminist voices that were equally relevant- and more focused on labor exploitation, racial discrimination, marginalization, and recognizing difference- during this time weren’t necessarily focused on established institutions of the left or right. To say that the core of feminism is about individual choice and freedom also doesn’t reflect the diversity in feminist approaches and is as intangible and vapid as most other political generalizations about choice and freedom.

So how can Palin and Bachmann prove a wide appeal to right-wing feminism given that they don’t identify as feminists (at least not all the time) and the types of policies they support? Wolf seems to be making the leap to argue that the conservative politics that Palin and Bachmann share represents a new type of right wing feminism; however, feminism has been about eliminating gender inequalities, acknowledging difference, and radical change- the antithesis to the call for a return to ‘traditional values.’ There seems to be some ‘degrees of separation’ logic happening here: most feminism is political, most feminists are women, therefore political women must be feminists. Logic 101 would help identify the problem with this train of thought and point Wolf (and hopefully those who want to write about Palin and Bachmann together in the future) to the following conclusions: the only thing remotely feminist about these two is that they both have breasts.