Tag Archives: gender

Bad Advice on Making Academic Babies: opting in and out of heteronormative panic

(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

What I remember most about my post-grad Gender and Politics seminar were the extensive discussions we had about having babies. It was 2004, and debates about babies vs careers, and whether women should ‘opt out‘ to raise families, were heated and divisive. Women were told in the 1980s and 1990s that the highest feminist aspiration was to wear oversize, terrible suits and work alongside men- as equals (or at least work alongside men, while accepting less pay and dealing with harassment). This was followed by the movement to denounce the double-day; the New York Times and Time Magazine led the charge in declaring that women wanted out of the work force, and were empowered by the choice to stay at home and raise children. Less than a decade later, it was declared that ‘women couldn’t have it all‘- the career, family balance was a loose loose choice. We had been duped. The opt out luxury was always ‘fiction‘ that only really applied to white middle-class women. Forbes pointed out that opt-out mom’s were unable to catch up in their careers and Al Jazeera concluded that women weren’t opting out, they were out of options. The opt out women ‘wanted back in‘ (are you confused yet about what *good* feminists should want??). Perhaps the culmination of this back and forth comes in Linda Hirshman’s book, ‘Get to Work…And Get a Life Before it is too Late.’ Hirshman calls ‘opting out’ a form of ‘self-betrayal’ (and also encourages women to only have one child).
Entangled within this debate were mixed messages about how to ‘time’ having children (note, there was no debate there about whether strategizing to fit children within one’s career plan was itself a problem).
One article I read back in 2004 encouraged women to ‘do the math’ and take control over the timing of children so that they didn’t ‘forget,’ have to rush to become a ‘last chance mother,’ or run out of biological time before they reproduced- ending up ‘single and childless‘.* The strategy went like this: pick the age at which you want to have a child (or your last child, if you want more than one), count back in years and account for how long you want to be married before you have children, count back more years and think how long you will date before you get married. The results- your long term birth plan.
Does it get more heteronormative that this? The article made several big assumptions, including: Continue reading Bad Advice on Making Academic Babies: opting in and out of heteronormative panic

The Sexual Scandal Factor in Military Policy Making

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

Do scandals- particularly the kind that receive international attention- inspire progressive gender policies? While there is no conclusive research on this question, there are indicators that sexual violence scandals may be as important as public opinion or operational changes in influencing policy change in the military (perhaps more so).

My prediction– you can quote me on this- is that the current onslaught of sexual violence scandals in the US military will provide the tipping point needed to remove the combat exclusion. Do I think this is the answer to the problem of one in three female service members facing rape during their service? Absolutely not. Will it be a temporary distraction to a widespread systematic problem? Absolutely- just take a look at some earlier cases.

There is almost no comparative research shedding light on why 14 of the world’s militaries have decided to remove the exclusion. BUT, if you look at each country case by case a startling pattern emerges: major sexual violence scandals rocked many of these countries in the period immediately preceding the removal of the exclusion. For example, New Zealand didn’t officially remove the exclusion until 2001, only a few years after a scathing investigation indicated that 42 sex charges had been laid with the navy within five years. Canada removed the combat exclusion as a result of a Human Rights Tribunal decision in 1989. However, leading up to the decision there were widespread accounts of sexual violence plaguing the services. This culminated in a late 1990s Maclean’s magazine detailed expose on sexual violence, including evidence of multiple rapes at gunpoint and widespread acceptance of sexual harassment. Australia is the latest country to remove the exclusion, making the decision only last September. This policy change came on the heals of the famous “skype scandal,” which saw an Australian Defence Force Academy cadet broadcast, without consent, consensual sex with a fellow cadet. This incident proved to be the tip of the iceberg as evidence of “decades of abuse” continue to come to light in recent reports.

How can one account for an international sex scandal as a contributing factor to major policy changes? What are the implications if some gender policy changes are “shush” policies designed to detract from institutional sexism?

Only time can answer these questions- and tell if my prediction is correct. But with new reports of sexual harassment and violence within the US military emerging almost daily- including headlines declaring “Rape on US bases left unchecked,” and “Why rapists in the military get away with it“- and with the documentary “The Invisible War” drawing international audience’s attention to the problem of rape within the forces, ignoring the problem is no longer an option. Removing the combat exclusion as a distraction from institutionalized and endemic sexual violence would be the right policy for the wrong reason. The problem does not call for adding more women, or allowing women to ‘do more’ within the forces; rather, it requires a change in sexist attitudes and behaviors. This will involve far work than a single policy change.

IR Course Uncovers the Romantic Comedy Foruma

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

My students and I have unlocked the key to writing a blockbuster romantic comedy script. When lecturing on masculinities in my Gender and Human Rights course I gave students the following challenge: think of an stereotypical, ideal-type character that symbolizes one form of hegemonic masculinity. Remembering that hegemonic masculinities are fluid ideal types that vary across history and context,  students came up with answers like “the macho rugby player,” “the workaholic CEO,” “the playboy” and “the quiet, rugged cowboy.” After getting them to list the qualities that define these masculine types, I asked them to imagine a scenario or event that would completely challenge, undermine, or seemingly contradict these masculine identities and to talk about how their immediate community and society might react. Well, the answers produced almost every romantic comedy script you can imagine.
Here are a few examples:
Scenario 1: Rugby player decides to be a stay at home dad
Result: fans and teammates are shocked, hilarity ensues. I think there is an entire sub-category of comedies dedicated to macho men trying to raise babies: “Three Men and a Baby,” “Kindergarten Cop,” Vin Deisel’s “The Babysitter”
Scenario 2: star athlete reveals a secret love of ballet/opera etc, or, more specifically, hockey player reveals a secret love of figure skating
Result: his mates initially ostracize him but end up being impressed with is skills. This is loosely the real plot line of “The Cutting Edge”, a cheesy 90s romantic comedy.
Scenario 3: playboy falls in love
Result: “Crazy, Stupid Love”and a million other romantic comedies premised on the macho main character ‘softening’ as his goofy sidekick ‘hardens’ up- the result is that both find true love.
Scenario 4: Rugged cowboy comes out of the closet
Result: you see where I’m going here.

So what’s the take home message? Romantic comedies could not exist without very specific and stereotypical ideas about masculinity (and femininity). We tend to over-examine the representation of women in popular culture (for good reason) but are less apt at looking at how the construction and unraveling of masculinity is key to almost any Rom Com script. Never mind the fact that there is almost always a great example of complicit masculinity- those characters that do not fit the stereotype of hegemonic masculinity but who benefit from the power structures associated with the identity. Think “Pretty Woman”, where a hardened CEO softens under the spell of employee while his jerk of a partner grapples with the situation. Go on, think of your favorite Rom Coms and spot the hegemonic masculinity/complicit masculinity at play. Have fun.

Let’s (Keep) Talking About Sex

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

Foreign Policy just published its latest issue online. The letters section includes a response that expands on my earlier blog post calling the recent “Sex” issue a Teen Magazine. For those interested in reading further, my letter points FP editors to a wider range of scholarship and contributors they might have considered and challenges them to reconsider gender as only a ‘special issue:’
“Women are half the population (are we still having this discussion?), and norms associated with gender and identity affect everyone. So forget the special issues. Instead, start publishing more articles that focus on gender and pay more attention to the excellent research on gender, feminism, and sex that is happening all around you. Your readers will thank you.”
This echos Charli Carpenter’s excellent post on the issue, which included a dos and don’t list for anyone considering a gender/sex/sexuality issue, and reminded the editors of FP that “you can’t just assert that “sex is the missing part of the equation” and that this works “to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity” and then tell us that besides “this one issue” (which by the way mostly focuses on sexuality, not on women’s issues or gender relations broadly) you’ve done your due diligence…”

All Male Soldiers are Rapists and all Female Soldiers are Weak Homewreckers: Fox News on Female Soldiers

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

I mostly try to let Fox News polemics slide past me like water off a ducks back. It was easy to dismiss Liz Trotta’s first rant about the proposed changes to the US military, which will allow more women into front-line positions (and recognize those women who are already in these posts) but the second iteration, in which she clarifies her position (and clearly reads a diatribe from a prompter) demands another interruption to my blogging hiatus. We should start with a briefing of Liz-isms, including: “hardline feminist,” “feminist biology,” and “feminist creed.” Let’s see if these become clear after a quick view of her main arguments:
1. The women and combat issue has “never gotten a fair and open hearing” and has instead been established as a “fait accompli” by “hardline feminists.”
2. These same hardline feminists have helped to fabricate “silly and dishonest fairy tales about women’s heroism in war” to support their case for removing the exclusion.
3. Biology is destiny and that men are facing “feminist biology” and having to work with weaker women.
4. Testosterone rules in war and that in closed combat “basic instincts” take over, which put women at risk.
5. Signs of abuse within the military are all too often used to support the “never enough bureaucracy of women victims within the armed forces.”

Let’s just leave her rant about pregnant women and the desecration of the American family aside for now and work with these 5. First, the women and combat issue has received almost as many open hearings as Fox has failed Republican hosts. Liz herself cites the 1991 Senate hearing on the issue and fails to note that the policy changes she is talking about came as a result of a commission initiated by Congress. Second, Trotta cites the Jessica Lynch fabrication as evidence that women’s participation in combat more generally has been essentially ‘made up.’ The Lynch debacle is something to take note of precisely because the fairy tale it created was one of female victimhood and male heroism. Why turn to this example of military propaganda when there is other evidence of women’s participation in combat- for example, women make up 16% of the fatalities in the Iraq and Afghanistan missions and several have won medals for their contributions to combat missions in Iraq. Trotta is right on the third point in the sense that women do measure up differently than men in physical standards tests. But, as reported in a previous blog, the military chose to have sex-specific testing- not because it wanted women to have lower standards, but as part of a recognition of physical difference and the requirements needed to test job capacity rather than meet the male standard. And PS Liz, biology isn’t destiny because according to experts like Maia Goodell, over 5% of women are kicking men’s butts on physical standards tests. The AVERAGE women has less upper body strength and endurance than men, but the military often attracts and creates above average female candidates. The fourth and fifth points that Trotta makes are the most troubling. This ‘basic instinct’ argument is a thrown back to prehistoric analysis of men as incapable of controlling their drive and their genitalia. The argument is insulting to men and ignores subsequent evidence that women and men can work in close proximity without men feeling obliged to rape. As for the sexual violence statistics- surely this is evidence of a major gender problem within the military rather than proof that women need to be kept out.
How did we get here Liz (I feel like we’re on a first name basis since you call feminists whatever you want)? What is your objective? Who are these crazy hardline feminists you speak of and why are you so cynical and dismissive of a “feminist creed” focused on “the right to choose, rights over one’s body etc” as you put it? Why are you and other Republicans like Santorum making this about family values rather than seeing it as a sign the changing reality of the US military (and others)? Australia, Canada and 12 other countries have NO restrictions on women in combat roles and the family structure has not disappeared, men do not rape every female in their proximity, and feminists have not overrun the countries with their irrational cries for respect, rights, and recognition.

Assessing the Arguments Against GI Jane II: Unpacking the Cohesion Hypothesis

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

In my post last week I talked about the three main arguments against removing the combat exclusion for women: the physical standards argument, the moral argument, and the cohesion hypothesis. My main point was that with increased research on physical standards, the intangibility of the moral argument, and increased evidence that women already are in combat, the cohesion hypothesis remains as the most significant set of arguments against GI Janes.

There are two main premises to the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is causally linked to group (in this case military unit) performance; 2. women negatively impact cohesion and thereby negatively impact troop effectiveness.

The trouble with these two premises is that they both have been largely discounted by researchers. In her 1998 article on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in International Security, Elizabeth Kier concludes that “the results from more than five decades of research in group dynamics, organizational behaviour, small-group research, sports psychology, social psychology, military history, and military sociology challenge the proposition that primary group unit cohesion enhances military performance.” Some research even indicates that high levels of cohesion can be detrimental to military performance as it results in conformity, groupthink, and a lack of adaptability. Many of the studies on cohesion and the military find that leadership and task- not social- cohesion have a greater impact on performance than social cohesion.
In terms of the second premise, as mentioned in the last post RAND’s major study on cohesion in 1997 found that women don’t impact group performance or military readiness. Subsequent research has reconfirmed this conclusion.

In addition to shaky (at best) premises, another major problem with the cohesion hypothesis is that it is never clear what exactly is meant by cohesion within the military context. In hopes of finding answers to this puzzle I went on a wild goose chase for cohesion clarity.

Sifting through research on social cohesion in the military I found myself sinking in masses of studies on social cohesion, citizenship and multiculturalism, group dynamics, as well as military studies on cohesion. It turns out that social cohesion is the meaningless catchphrase of the moment (I think it may have even eclipsed ’empowerment’ and ‘deliberative democracy’). Social cohesion has been used to explain the London riots, failed and successful immigration policies, winning sports team dynamics, as well as the need to keep women out of combat roles. Cohesion has also been defined as everything from: shared norms, ‘liking’ one another, commitment to a group, bonding, and trust. So how can one vague concept explain such wide-ranging and disparate policy decisions and social dynamics?

There is little substance to the cohesion hypothesis, almost no empirical evidence supporting it, and even the different forces with the US military seem to define and measure cohesion differently. I certainly don’t have the answer, but it does seem that in most contexts it is employed- especially in discussions of migrant integration, multiculturalism, and the combat exclusion- ‘cohesion’ is a red herring that distracts from attention to deeper issues of discrimination and cultural bias. In the case of the US military, cohesion is a smoke and mirrors debate that will persist until sexist attitudes and gender discrimination are addressed.

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?