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Sexist attitudes mean female US military don’t get recognition they deserve


Jem McCarron
WVoN co-editor 

So far 60 women serving in the US army have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is despite the fact that, officially, they are not permitted to fight for their country.

On Thursday 9 February, following a yearlong review by the Pentagon into the impact of women in the armed forces, the American Department of Defense (DoD) announced new rulings that will open up around 14,000 military positions to women.

However the DoD stopped well short of removing the ban on women in combat, frustrating equality campaigners who argue that women are more than capable of doing their duty in these roles. As the stats show, many women are already serving, and dying, on the front line.

According to historian Kara Dixon Vuic, author of “Officer, Nurse, Woman: the Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War” such double-standards are nothing new. Women were drafted into the US military during World War II, serving as mechanics, plane movers and filling many other vital roles but found themselves expelled from the Army once peace resumed.

It wasn’t until the army became purely voluntary, after the Vietnam war, that women were actively recruited again.

Today women make up 14 per cent of American troops in Afghanistan and 15 per cent of the 1.5 million personnel on active duty worldwide.

Last week’s announcement still keeps over 280,000 positions officially out of the reach of women, including cavalry, tank crewmen, Special Forces and submarine positions.

Representative Loretta Sanchez (California Democrat) and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a  statement: “Unfortunately, the conclusions of this report do not go far enough. I am very disappointed, it is essentially a pilot program, which I believe is ridiculous.”

Women currently serve in “attachments” to battalions, effectively already doing many of the roles that the DoD have just opened up and a few more besides.

Laura Bowder, professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, has interviewed over fifty women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for her latest book, “When Janey Comes Marching Home: Stories of American Women at War”.

“I would say there are fewer and fewer areas in which women are not participating….the reality is that women are in combat.”

There is still significant resistance to women in the military, both within congress and the Army itself. Many people are still uncomfortable with the idea of women fighting and mothers coming home in body bags.

A 1994 DoD ruling states that women can be restricted from positions “which include physically demanding tasks that would exclude the vast majority of women.”

When pressed on how the DoD could know that the vast majority of women were incapable of these tasks when not giving them the chance to even try, their response was vague.

Former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, Anu Bhagwati, said: “We’re not talking about opening up the infantry to every woman, but the women who do want to try these jobs, who are we to say that they can’t?”

Of course, there are practical issues that will require time and planning to resolve, as basic as sleeping and toileting facilities.

Ryan Kelty, who specialises in the military, told LiveScience:

“There will perhaps be growing pains; but maybe we have already gone through some of those….That’s not a reason not to do it and it certainly doesn’t justify the systematic exclusion of individuals who want to serve and are capable of serving.”

Most experts are of the opinion that politicians and society will catch up to the reality that women are already engaging in combat and providing a valuable resource to their armed forces.

It seems however, that could be later rather than sooner, especially when even male military officers are sceptical.

Some male Marines described it as a barrier, if only psychologically, to fighting alongside women. In a 2010 interview, Captain Scott A. Cuomo, a company commander of 270 Marines in central Helmand and a strong supporter of the female engagement teams, said:

“I think the infantry in me will have a very hard time ever accepting that I’m going to rush against the enemy and there’s going to be a female right next to me. Can she do it? Some might.

“I don’t know if this sounds bad, but I kind of look at everything through my wife. Is that my wife’s job? No. My job is to make sure my wife is safe.’’

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