Women in the Military: Challenging Assumptions About Women's Physicality

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 8:51pm EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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Photo from American Friends Service Committee.The recent announcement that women are now allowed to fight in combat for the United States military has opened a proverbial 'can of worms' with respect to the discussion of the place of women in society.  I use the word society because if women were valued as equal members of said society there would be no uproar over women in combat; therefore, when some argue that women are not strong enough for combat, that they disrupt group cohesion, and provide unnecessary distractions for male soldiers these statements apply just as much to civilian life as they do to military service.  My favourite argument thus far is that men will face trauma and embarrassment if forced to defecate in the presence of a woman.  Maybe the military should send all deployed soldiers with the book Everyone Poops.  I'm going to leave the arguments of group cohesion and sexual distraction for other bloggers (and The Daily Show) while I focus on the issue of physicality. Recently, Fit and Feminist wrote an article titled "Opening combat to women raises questions about fitness standards", which got my wheels turning so I would like to extend the conversation.

Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer-award winning columnist, is staunchly against allowing women in combat (I italicize the word allow because when do we ever discuss allowing men to do something?).  In her *ahem, crazy* article Women in combat a terrible idea for reasons too numerous to list, she writes

Most women are equal to most men in [courage, skill, patriotism and dedication], and are superior to men in many other areas, as our educational graduation rates at every level indicate.  Women also tend to excel as sharpshooters and pilots.
But ground combat is one area in which women, through quirks of biology and human nature, are not equal to men - a difference that should be celebrated rather than rationalized as incorrect.

Evidently, she has written a whole chapter about the ridiculousness of including women in combat in some book that I don't really want to promote.  Parker contends that "the most salient point happens to be a feminist argument: Women, because of their inferior physical capacities and greater vulnerabilities upon capture, have a diminished opportunity for survival."  Two thoughts: (1) when you put it like that I'm surprised we are allowed out of the house, and (2) she may want to look-up the definition of feminist.  As the standard argument runs, if a 6"4, 240 lb. soldier is injured and needs to be carried to safety how is his 5"4, 120 lb. compatriot supposed to carry him?  Personally, I see the liability as the guy who got injured not the able-bodied woman who managed to NOT get shot or NOT step on an IED but let's look at some actual research.

In a 2010 article by Maia Goodell she outlines a number of flaws with our normative assumptions surrounding sex and gender as well as flaws with military testing itself.  She believes that "the real issue is that critics believe the military should be masculine" leaving them with arbitrary arguments for excluding women from combat.  For example, most physiological research and "common sense" arguments focus on averages, such as the "average woman" can't lift as much as the "average man".  To which Goodell contends that average people don't usually join the military and the "average" argument serves to exclude above average women but includes below average men.  In other words, Serena Williams or Laila Ali wouldn't be allowed to serve in combat but if a small-statured male comedian, say Jon Stewart, wanted to he would have the opportunity.

Furthermore, it is commonly assumed that the observed differences in strength between sexes is inherent, but a "substantial body of research shows that women are systematically discouraged from physical activity and sports from the day they were born" (p.36).

Differences in physical training are profound and go well beyond a few hours on a sports field or at a gym.  Women's approach to physical tasks hobbles them; they do not use the full potential of their bodies.  Women are taught to occupy less space and avoid getting hurt.  Women take themselves to be the object, rather than the originator, of movement.  In other words, discrimination is built into our bodies. (p.36)

Crossfitter. Photo from List09. Goodell also questions the relevance of pushups as a measure of competence for a foot soldier.  "Test validation never enters into the argument" (p.39), which I think is a very valuable factor.  Sure, pull-ups mean a person has a strong upper body and the ability to run fast is nice when someone is chasing you but isolating these physical tasks do not necessarily translate to effectiveness as a soldier.  So many who are against women in combat make it seem like lifting heavy things is the entire job description.  WHEN in Iraq will being able to do 100 pushups save your life?  After all, would an athletic team cut an athlete if he/she had the worst pushup, sit-ups and pull-up scores on their team but was a consistently valuable player on the field?  I doubt it, because physical fitness is used to enhance one's performance but it does not dictate how one combines their physical, mental and emotional skills under dynamic circumstances, such as in a war zone. Is being physically strong necessary for a soldier? Yes.  Can most male soldiers lift more than most female soldiers? Yes, but this isn't a weight-lifting competition.

There are also different requirements based on age.  To illustrate, men over the age of 50 in the military have lower physical requirements for exercises such as curl-ups and the 1.5 mile run than do women between the ages of 17-19 (Goodell, 2010).  This again, serves to include men who are below average while excluding all women regardless of their ability.  The US Military recognizes that older men are unable to complete physical tasks with the same intensity as men in their twenties but I have yet to hear an argument against men over 50 in the military.  This is beyond a double-standard, it speaks to a fundamental assumption that all men have more value than any woman.

Canada, Australia and most Western European countries (excluding Britain) have already allowed women in combat positions.  Unless there is something distinctly different about American women that makes them far less physically competent I'm not sure what the big deal is.   Goodell (2010) mentions in her article that in the Vietnamese military they decided that women would carry all of the gear because their women had better endurance and complained less during long journeys. Insert feminist joke here.  So continues the 'crisis of masculinity' where there are increasingly fewer arenas that are exclusive to men.  With every (+) in the column for women it appears to be a (-) for men.  In my opinion, the fear stems not from including women but from expanding what it means to be a man.  If a woman can be both strong and weak, sensitive and aggressive then the dividing line between man and woman gets blurrier.  I think what this topic should create is NOT a dialogue about where women belong but about the confining nature of masculinity and where can men go from here?

*Side note: Parker, as with many other critics, argues that putting women in situations where they could possibly be tortured and raped is unacceptable.  She believes that rape against men fails to "hold the same appeal" as rape against women.  I am going to go on a limb and say that men who have been raped are equally as traumatized, and maybe more (in a different manner), because it is something that most men never think will happen to them.  As women we are socialized to fear rape but it is not presented as a viable fear for men, young or old. If the worst thing that many boys and men think is to be compared to a girl and feminized by their brethren then actually experiencing physical demasculinization must cause irreparable psychological damage.  In this instance, I ask Parker and her allies if placing women in such danger is a "terrible idea" then why don't we think twice about putting men in that same danger?  If it is assumed that women's bodies are not designed to withstand violence then the opposite assumption means that men's bodies are inherently designed for violence.  Sounds like a raw deal for all of us.

Works Cited:

Goodell, M.  (2010).  Physical-Strength Rationales for De Jure Exclusion of Women from Military Combat Positions.  Seattle University Law Review, 34, 17-50.

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