A Civilian Feminist’s Confessions on ‘Combat Equality’

My Feminist Frame is Civilian

sister in armsLast week I was standing at a San Francisco city bus stop plastered with Army recruitment flyers when I heard the news that the Pentagon had lifted the so-called ban on women in combat. (U.S. Air Force women have been in combat for 20 years.) While some have heralded this as opening the door for women to break through the brass ceiling, as an ardent pro-equality woman, I’m strangely conflicted.

Frankly, my notions of gender equity are grounded in the civilian world. Since girlhood I have envisioned my country as one that would give me the unequivocal right to make decisions about my own body, would guarantee me equal pay for equal qualifications and work, and would ensure that I have pathways to lead in the same ways that men have. And, I just knew that we’d have a female head of state by the time I ‘grew up.’

Okay, none of these things have happened yet…the gender equality battlefield is ongoing with military-like advancements and retreats, and no drones to turn to take out equality enemies. The “equality” achieved through the women in combat announcement caught me off guard. I realized, I’ve always thought more about the civilian glass ceiling than the U.S. Armed Forces brass ceiling that my American military sisters experience.

Shared Experience:  White Men at Top  

In comparison to the U.S. workforce where women make-up about 50%, about twenty percent of the U.S. military is female. Among U.S. Armed Forces’ top ranks, 69 of the 976 generals and admirals — 7.1% — are women. There were 28 female generals in the Air Force, 19 in the Army, one in the Marine Corps and 21 female admirals in the Navy in 2012.

Compare U.S. women’s roles in the 2012 corporate world:

  • Women held 8.1 percent of top earner slots.
  • Women’s share of Board Director and Executive Officer positions increased by only half a percentage point or less during the past year.
  • Women held only 16.6 percent of board seats in 2012—the seventh consecutive year of no growth.
  • Women held 14.3 percent of Executive Officer positions—flat-lined for the third straight year.
  • Women of color held only 3.3 percent of board seats, indicating no growth.
  • More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color board directors for the fifth consecutive year. (http://www.catalyst.org/media/catalyst-2012-census-fortune-500-no-change-women-top-leadership)

Although it is difficult for me to break free from my civilian (anti-war) lenses, I do see that I have something in common with U.S. Service Women:  we both experience white men at the top.

In 2009, Congress ordered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act a “Military Leadership Diversity Commission” (MLDC) to study and report on how the Armed Forces could enhance military effectiveness. The MLDC issued its report in 2011 and stated what could be said about every sector in America – corporate, academia, government – there are too many white men at the top and that has to change for the U.S. to thrive.

The commission provided 20 recommendations that included increasing the eligibility pool, making diversity a ‘priority,’ allow women in combat, instituting more outreach efforts, implementing ‘diversity strategic plans’ and requiring official explanations when a minority or woman is not nominated to 3- and 4-star positions. (http://dailycaller.com/2011/03/07/military-diversity-group-says-there-are-too-many-white-men-on-top/#ixzz2JOHsi1lI)

In bureaucractic time, adopting the women in combat recommendation was pretty fast action. Meanwhile, over 130 women have died in America’s two 21st Century wars. Six hundred military women were injured in Iraq and 300 in Afghanistan.

Women in Other Countries:  Combat Eligible for Years

The U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to most gender equality indicators and our Armed Forces is no different in terms of women and combat. The nations of northern Europe spearheaded gender equality in the military, with Norway lifting all restrictions in 1985, including for special operations jobs (the U.S. is waiting ‘til 2016 to decide if women can be in special forces), Denmark, Sweden and Finland followed suit.

Interestingly, these Nordic countries also boost much greater gender pay equity and political representation, not to mention family-friendly policies like paid maternity (and paternity) leave, and high quality child care. Canada, New Zealand, and Germany also allow women in combat; Israel drafts women who can serve in 90% of military roles.

Cause for Celebration?

share share shareI found myself eerily touched by an unusual source last week. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson (I usually cringe when his voice somehow filters into my life) tweeted:  “The latest feminist victory:  the right to get your limbs blown off in war.” Tucker named a thought that flashed through my mind:  is equal opportunity to participate in war a feminist victory?

What are your Main Street thoughts about U.S. women in combat? Is this ‘ban lifting’ a positive thing for women in America? How might this impact how girls see their chances for equality in the U.S.? How might more female military leaders move us away from the stranglehold the military industrial complex has on America? Will the brass ceiling be cracked faster than the glass ceiling in the civilian world?

I’d love your thoughts and I confess, though the reflection this announcement compelled did help me see how I share the ‘white men on top’ experience with my armed services sisters, I can’t whole-heartedly celebrate from here.



  1. Renata MacAlpine says:
  2. Ok it’s gone past midnight and the UK and i am half asleep reading this however why should it be different for service women? If quota’s are being set for women in the boardroom shouldn’t the same or similar rule apply to service women?

    • As always, Afi, you raise a great point! In the U.S., we do not have quotas for the board room, do not have receive paid maternity leave, and there are other pretty key differences from Europe/UK. However, your point is exactly what I feel conflicted about! Thanks so much for weighing in!

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