Early this year, the first women successfully completed the training process for the Army Rangers. A (potentially deeply flawed) study assessed the performance of female-integrated Marine Corps combat units. By January 1, all branches of the U.S. armed forces must present a plan for integrating women into combat roles, or a strong rationale for excluding women from those roles.
On the one hand, I am stoked for those female Rangers, precisely for the reason that they are achieving something that many people would have thought impossible. And there is plenty of research out there that provides a great takedown of the arguments most commonly presented against women in combat.
There are also a number of reasons why women in the military, and specifically in combat roles, could be a major improvement in the efficacy of the military.
In terms of efficacy, the cultural engagement teams serving alongside regular (all-male) combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq were indispensable in enhancing the operational capacity of those units. They could gather intel and build trust in ways that had been almost entirely lost to units of all-male soldiers operating in those theaters. The same study (linked above) that reportedly found that women were injured more often and mixed units moved more slowly- a finding that has since been called into question- also found that mixed units were better able to solve more complex problems.
Furthermore, since service in combat units is often viewed as a prerequisite for advancement to the highest ranks in the military, integrating women into combat units opens up new possibilities for them to advance, and bring new perspectives to the upper echelons of military thinking.
But because I am a progressive, I can’t just be happy with these developments.
Smarter people than me have written about white feminism, and the ways it can advance the interests of middle to upper class white women at the expense of women of color and working class or poor women, as well as queer and trans women. Telling women to “lean in” or “think like a man, act like a lady,” for example, both reinforce gender stereotypes and continue to elevate traditionally “male” or “masculine” behaviors, rather than questioning both the assumption that those behaviors are somehow male or that they are inherently more desirable or will lead to more success than other behaviors. Of course, it also does not address the way that women who are CEOs can still use business practices that adversely affect lower-class women. For instance, most low-wage service workers are women, and especially women of color, and having more women running Fortune 500 countries doesn’t necessarily help them. Policies that we don’t necessarily think of immediately as feminist, such as raising the minimum wage, would do much more for them. If a female CEO is not ready to implement those kinds of policies, are they really an improvement on a male CEO? Is their existence really evidence of progress, or simply another form of tokenism?
A separate issue that also sometimes comes up is the question of whether men can be feminist. There are a lot of issues packed into that question, but one of my favorite things I have ever heard about male feminists, or male feminist allies, is that feminism does not need to make a space for men; men should take the space they already inhabit in society and use their privilege to make that space more feminist.
Similar questions are raised by women’s integration into the military and combat. As women enter into more diverse roles in the military, will they make the military more feminist, or like the white feminists of the business world, will they engage in behaviors that hurt other women? We would like to think that a woman military commander would take sexual assault in her unit seriously, and I do believe that many would. But on the other hand, Lynndie England engaged in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, allegedly at least in part due to the influence of a male soldier.
Frequently in feminist discourse we operate on the assumption that opening the door to more women will automatically result in more feminist policies, but unfortunately that is not always the case. So while I am indeed in favor of integrating women who want to serve in combat roles into those combat roles, I am also desperate for us to think of other feminist policies we can bring into our military. How can we better serve the women – and men – who are sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers? How can we ensure a higher standard for treatment of prisoners, men, women, and any other gender identity? On a grander scale, how do we minimize the impact of our military actions on civilians of all genders?
More female soldiers can and should be one piece of a much bigger puzzle, but we shouldn’t simply militarize our feminism. We should take on the much more difficult task of making our military, and the political system that controls it, more feminist.