|Photo caption: U.S. Navy Operations Specialist 1st Class Megan Garcia. Image thanks to Flickr user isafmedia.|
In 1994, women were officially banned from United States military combat when the Department of Justice implemented a government sanctioned glass ceiling called the ground combat exclusion policy. The policy stated that “Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” This effectively excluded women from some 238,000 jobs within the armed forces, prevented meaning advancement, and, most destructively, contributed to gender-biased cultural constructs with its effect on the media.
Stories of male bravery abound as they have for centuries. In the past decade we have witnessed tremendous national tragedy, much in the form of dead soldiers returning home to be buried in American soil. The majority of the fallen have been men. According to The Washington Post, as of February 8, 2013, 6,483 U.S. service members have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Only 146 of them have been female. It might seem nice to be kept out of harm’s way, but it perpetuates a media image, and thus a cultural norm, of men as strong and brave and women as weak and timid, of men in leading roles and women in supporting ones.
If people were thoughtful and informed, it would counteract some of the cultural consequences. But for the most part, we aren’t. We don’t ask why more women don’t die in war. We don’t question whether it has to do with possible sexism embedded in every level of the process from recruitment to deployment. We just see men dying for our country, never see women dying for our country, and incorporate this information into our cultural understanding of gender, gender characteristics, and gender roles.
There are still many arguments made in support of the ground combat exclusion policy (despite the fact that women have unofficially been fighting in combat for years). Notably, that women are physically and emotionally weaker than men and that they are needed to do certain jobs, supporting jobs, like nursing and building schools. One of the most strongly advocated arguments in favor of the exclusion policy is that men have no self-control. Apparently their evolutionary drives to protect and impregnate women overpower their own free will, making women nothing more than a distraction to our mostly male military force. The argument that men have no impulse control and thus should have the exclusive right to jobs that, because of their deadly consequences, require acute abilities in quick assessment and constraint, is an interesting one. One would think this humiliating claim of infant-level discipline would do more harm to men than women, but instead it has allowed men to prosper, to build an infrastructure of support and advancement, while repressing women, in one of the largest and most important and respected employers in the United States.
The idea that self control is affected by gender is logically ridiculous, but culturally not so. In the recent New York Times article, “Darwin Was Wrong About Dating,” the theory that gender-specific sexual stereotypes have developed due to evolution is challenged. Rather, Dan Slater argues, our sexual stereotypes have evolved due to cultural norms. Slater presents research that shows that our ideas of gender-specific differences, at least when it comes to sexuality, are almost non-existent when controlling for cultural norms. We see cultural norms played out for us everyday in the media. Research of men in the media, from children’s programming to prime-time TV, has found them to be portrayed as confident, powerful, unafraid, competent, emotionless and ‘“engaged in exciting activities from which they receive rewards from others for their ‘masculine’ accomplishments,’”’ (Wood, 1994, p. 32). Additionally, men dominate the airwaves and control our media content.
This argument between evolutionary and sociocultural development matters because it goes to the heart of the gender conflict. Does our gender make us incapable of learning and executing a skill as well as the other gender? Are men, by virtue of being men, incapable of learning and executing self-control? Are women, by virtue of being women, incapable of learning and executing precise combat activity?
As Slater writes in his article, “This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve pushed these [evolutionary] theories too far. How many stereotypical racial and ethnic differences, once declared evolutionarily determined under the banner of science, have been revealed instead as vestiges of power dynamics from earlier societies?” I hope that with the lifting of the ground combat exclusion policy we are able to dismiss this government sanctioned sexism as a misled idea from an “earlier time.” A time when we gave both men and women much less credit than they deserve. If the government doesn’t see women as equal, why should their communities, their bosses, or their husbands? In fact, if the government doesn’t see women as equally capable, why should they see themselves as such? Let’s not forget that women make up more than half of this country and vote more than men do. They are pronounced in their patriotism and their investment in this nation, and if they want to fight for this country, and die for this country, they will learn how and execute.
Wood, J. (1994). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. Wadsworth Thomson Learning. Belmont, CA.