Being Seen as a Moral Equal, and the Freedom of Choosing to Participate:Views on Women in Combat

by: Mariann Devlin 

Women in Combat Milestones

Once I got into a long-winded Facebook debate about equal pay with a friend who was a liberal activist. It began when he posted a chart showing that men, on average, are employed in fields that are more dangerous and physically demanding, so- he argued- it is somewhat understandable that men would be paid more.

To my surprise, he took an apologetic stance toward pay discrepancies between men and women. If women want to be paid equally, he said, they should volunteer to work those laborious and sometimes life-threatening jobs too.

Many unequal pay apologists also believe that women, on some level, prefer to be treated equally unless it requires them to do the dirty work that men have been doing all along.

It’s a common observation that skeptics of feminism make, and one that misses the point entirely.

The accusation that feminists want equality, unless it involves the hard, necessary and life-threatening work, sets up a false dilemma between our freedom to choose, and our understandable hesitancy in fully integrated ourselves into all male-dominated activities and social realms. With the Pentagon announcing this week that it has lifted the ban on women in close-combat roles, I am reminded of this stance and its potential to create an imaginary conflict between feminism and gender equality.

Feminism has much to say in the debate over women working in fields which aren’t just male-dominated, but which put us at bodily risk as well. Part of the resistance in supporting women in combat (or allowing them to work alongside men as construction workers or firefighters, for that matter) rests in the observation that women are, in general, physically weaker than men. It’s a boring argument for everyone, and a problem that’s easily avoided by physical standards tests – so to make things more complicated, feminist skeptics reach for this case against feminism in general: the idea that feminists are content with allowing women to be equal in those fields that don’t require much sacrifice on their part; that despite all this squawking about gender equality, what women really want is to have their cake and eat it too.

However, not only are there different types of feminism with different ethical visions, there are also at least two different, ahem, battles being fought. There’s the battle for the freedom that comes with being seen as a moral equal, and the freedom of choosing to participate in male-dominated social realm. It’s important that feminists remember this distinction, when faced with issues like women in combat. Or women working as CEOs.

Feminists want women to be viewed as moral and intellectual equals, but for some feminists, such equality is limited when it comes to the differences between male and female experiences. We’re not talking about the biological wiring of “female” brains versus “male” brains- but the experience of being brought up as a girl or a woman, versus the experience of being raised and brought up as a boy or a man. Our sense of right and wrong, our values and our meanings, will be different because of our different positions in society.

We must remember this difference, when discussing the necessity of women being viewed as equals in combat-related roles and physically-demanding jobs. The goal of most feminisms is to be treated as an equal individual, with unique perspectives that should be taken into account in all realms of life. Sometimes that unique perspective is one which avoids the arguably patriarchal structure of war and violence.

Noah Berlatsky at the Atlantic is right, in his recent essay on anti-war feminism.  For feminist pacifist Virginia Woolf, good feminism is one which is inherently anti-war, for war is a largely male endeavor and contrary to human equality. It is men who are the primary makers and participants of war. This theory sometimes borders on being too essentialist for my taste, in the sense that women are also active participants in the prejudices which lead to war: nationalism, racism ethnophobia, among many other things. We may not, in general, have as much power as men in making the final decision to hit the nuke button, but we cannot absolve ourselves of wrongdoing when we are equally prejudiced.

Yet these are nuances that Berlatsky goes over in his well-written piece. Regardless of the argument about patriarchy and war, most feminists would agree that allowing women to serve in close-combat indicates- at the very least- a positive evolution toward equality, at least when it comes to male attitudes toward female mental strength. In spite of skeptics like Rick Santorum, (  we are- for better or for worse- gradually being seen as having the same mental and emotional grit as men. Eventually, women may be judged as moral equals for the same reasons. However, this change in attitude toward our ability to fight alongside men is not the alpha and omega of feminist or LGTBQ equality, for strong equality transcends male/female or gay/straight relationships. A feminist mindset, if it is truly oriented toward social justice and equality between all human beings, will not even consider participating in acts of violence against other people. I fear that female soldiers, along with feminists who celebrate the Pentagon’s new policy, will overlook this important fact.

Actually, once we begin to sense that a dominant group (men) moving toward greater acceptance of previously marginalized groups (women) we must take a step back and consider what more needs to be done. Specifically, we must remind ourselves of those groups who have yet to be heard. The enemy combatants, for example, that “equality”-oriented female infantry soldiers, so entitled of their own equal rights, may conveniently dismiss.


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