Female militarism: Band of sisters?

Fighting on the front lines of a war zone doesn’t exactly reflect feminist ideals or progress towards gender equality.

US eases rules on female soldiers
'Exclusion of women defies the flexibility of modular wars, a flexibility that the military needs,' writes author [Getty]

The US war machine is both very old and newly changing. Battlefields are drawn differently and new technologies distance most of us from both the new and old horrors of war. Un”manned” drones define new ways to surveil and kill. Simultaneously, misogyny within the military expressed through sexual humiliation and rape appears rampant while gender “equality” formally ends the exclusion of women from frontline combat positions.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has lifted the military’s official ban on women in combat. This overrides a 1994 Pentagon ruling that excluded women from artillery, armour, infantry and other combat. For the women in the US military who have fought and wanted access to these realms, it is a victory. It allows them full citizenship, and opportunity without arbitrary barriers. If they can qualify physically, they can no longer be excluded from “frontline combat”, however, wherever that is located in today’s wars.

These women say they are already in harm’s way and doing the “heavy lifting” but fail to get the recognition. Despite the official ban, 800 US women were wounded and 130 have died in these wars while being “excluded” from combat. And, multiple thousands of Afghan and Iraqi women have died with even less recognition. The new ruling simply recognises some of this reality legally, formally, and structurally for US women. They will now be able to claim their rightful pay grade and be in route for promotions that require combat experience.

All of the above, however, starts mid-stream. I wonder who really wants to serve in combat? Who wants to fight wars in the first place? Who wants to be on the front lines and kill other human beings – or better yet, get killed themselves? I know I do not want to, nor do I know many men and women who would readily “choose” this. Not all, but many who “choose” to enlist have few other alternatives. Many are in the US military today because of a lack of alternatives in a shrinking job market. Before enlisting, Jessica Lynch, the now famous blond female Iraq war POW, had first applied for a job at Wal-Mart, which she did not get. The pay is about equal between Wal-Mart and the military, although the latter job can get you killed. I do not think that many enlisted women are any more pro-war than I am. It is a job, albeit a dangerous one. The rest of us are just lucky enough to have other options.

US military to allow women on the frontline

Changing trajectories of war

My point is that the global economy and its shrinking labour market, everywhere, is growing more militarist and more female at the same time. And, it is really important to not confuse the presence of females, especially in combat, with gender “equality”. The global economy is not less misogynistic, it is just much more gender fluid. There is less and less equality for everyone, men and women alike. Equal to what and to whom and for what? I am thinking about that 99 percent. US military women are still part of the 99 percent, unequal even if now with full citizen rights.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have changed the trajectory of women in the US military in the last two decades. Women helped fill the ranks when not enough men were choosing to do so. Now hundreds of thousands of women of all colours have served in these wars. And it is not clear that women’s rights or feminisms of any sort were the initial impetus here, even if then president George Bush Sr lauded the US government’s Iraq war as being the best equal opportunity employer around. In reality, more young women were looking for “opportunities” to fund college and feed their families.

The context – historical, economic, cultural, racial, sexual – is always changing and right now it is hard to see and know what the changes mean. Even though equal treatment has most often thought to be a good thing, it is not clear what it might really fully mean today in this context. I think we need to wonder about the new complexity of war/s and new possible meanings of equality. This is especially true when the changes are a kind of catch-up to what already exists but also recognition of new military needs that morph into supposed “rights” for women.  

If I might be allowed just one more thought – which takes me to drones – about the changing nature/practices of war and, maybe gender. Missy Cummings of MIT and a former bomber pilot now heads the project on “unmanned” aerial vehicles”, better known as drones. She is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and landed F/A-18 fighter jets on aircraft carriers while she was a navy pilot in 2003. During the 2012 TEDMED conference Cummings admitted that she “loved dropping bombs” and/but also saw that the new technologies were going to make her job obsolete.  

Missy Cummings now leads research for “unmanned” vehicles. She does not seem worried about the abuses of drones – she rather says she is a technologist and dedicated to discovery – that it is for others to assess the dangers. Instead, she focuses on enabling people with smart phone use for humanitarian disaster relief and is working on a medical evacuation helicopter for the military.

Interestingly for me, she is also the author of The Hornet’s Nest, that tells the story of her horrific and sometimes humiliating treatment when she was in the Navy. She was never accepted as an equal even though she probably was “more” than an equal in terms of her skills. Yet, Missy, blonde and white and female is leading the military in some of its newest re-wiring. This all is nothing if not complicated.

Rethinking/rescoping gender equality

US lifts ban on women in frontline combat

Equality has always meant different things to different women in different locations, different classes, races, and sexual identities. And equality itself continues to mean different things for different women. Perhaps, for women in the military it does mean recognition of their combat front-line roles. But this recognition stands in stark contrast to the “unequal” sexual abuse and violation that is structurally rampant in the armed forces. The new wars care less about the sex of the body – female and male bodies become more exchangeable on the battlefield, even while misogynist sexual violence continues apace.

The same day that Panetta proposed ending the ban on women in combat, a report documenting sexual assaults of Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas was released. On January 24, 2013, the two stories ran side by side in the New York Times. The horrific sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape of women in the US military have been well documented for years now. At Lackland, many of these young women were teenagers; and 59 of them were abused by 32 instructors. Two of the instructors repeated these offences with 10 different recruits. There is a long known history of these scandals, Tailhook being one of the best known during the early 1990s.  

I think one should not readily speak of gender “equality” in the military as long as sexual abuse exists there, alongside the rape, as well of civilian women in war-torn countries. Panetta says he wants to eliminate all unnecessary gender based barriers to service without bringing the more silenced war against women on this other battlefield into view. There is more than one combat zone that creates unconscionable prohibitions for women.

Changing paradigms

I wonder if, in the end, all the historical and economic change actually changes gender itself – the cultural/political/economic construction of what females can do. In other words, females and males come to do more similar – more “equal” – things; and maybe concepts of gender change and evolve as a result of new needs that may not be in anyone’s interest but the 1 percent? I do not want to call these new necessities and arrangements of war “gender equality”.

Equality discourse though crucial to all human rights has long been problematic. No woman is ever equal in a misogyny that is also already classed as sexually and racially hierarchical. Exactly which person is one interested in being equal to in the first place? I am pretty sure that most Afghan and Iraqi women do not see it as a “win” that they or a loved one will now have the chance to be killed by a female American soldier. New forms of female militarism need careful evaluation so that “women’s equality” does not become a sexual decoy of sorts.

Gender and its place in the militarism of empire is changing. Exclusion of women defies the flexibility of modular wars, a flexibility that the military needs. New recruitment needs defy the “exclusion” phrase. If you want to call this gender equality be my guest. But I think it may be an updated form of militarist misogyny that is not so equal after all.

If there are to be new possibilities for women’s equality as a gender, there need to be new ways to think about it. The structural needs of misogyny are always in flux even though cultural practices of sexual violence remain. This contradictory and complex relation is at the heart of the matter. Women across this globe suffer this violence at the same time that they move and shake this world. It is time to martial energy to end sexual violence towards women everywhere and thereby challenge the militarism of the globe as well.

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009);Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).