Crucial as it is for women to have the same opportunities and benefits as men who do comparable work, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement that women can now serve in combat positions in the military should not be misconstrued as a step forward for women.
As the women’s rights advocacy group AF3IRM GABNET said in a statement on their Facebook page,
The Pentagon lifted a ban on women in combat, stating that women can now serve on the frontlines. We in AF3IRM know that this is already common practice and that women of color and transnational women are already disproportionately over-represented in the US military. They are pushed into military duty due to poverty and lack of other options.
We do not celebrate this new “elimination of a gender-based barrier.” We do not celebrate sending us women overseas to kill other women and children in someone else’s name. (emphasis mine)
According to a study by the PEW Research Center, women now make up 14% of the enlisted ranks and 16% of the officer ranks. A look at the racial breakdown of those numbers is instructive,
While 71% of active-duty men are white (including white Hispanics), only about half of active-duty women (53%) are white. The share of white women in the military is also significantly smaller than their proportion in the civilian female population ages 18-44 (78%).
More than three-in-ten (31%) military women are black (including black Hispanics). This is almost twice the share of active-duty men who are black (16%), as well as more than twice the proportion of civilian women ages 18-44 who are black (15%). In addition, more women in the active-duty force than men in the active-duty force and civilian women ages 18-44 are of mixed racial background or some other race.
The share of Hispanics among women and men in the armed forces is similar (13% vs. 12%, respectively), and the share of military women who are Hispanic is smaller than that of Hispanic women ages 18-44 in the U.S. civilian population (16%). But the number of Hispanics enlisting in the active-duty force each year has risen significantly over the last decade. In 2003, Hispanic women and men made up 11.5% of the new enlistees to the military; just seven years later, in 2010, they made up 16.9% of non-prior service enlisted accessions.
More than eight-in-ten post-9/11 female veterans say they joined to serve their country or receive education benefits (83% and 82%, respectively). Fully 70% say they joined to see more of the world and almost as many (67%) say they joined to gain job skills.
However, there is one key difference in the reasons that men and women joined the military. Some 42% of female veterans say they joined the military because jobs were hard to find, compared with one-quarter of men.
The take away here should be that we need to take a good hard look at the ways in which we are failing these women in regard to job training and job availability in the civilian world because as it stands now, we are effectively asking the most disenfranchised among us to fight our wars, and this move only makes it more dangerous for them, regardless of rank and benefits.
It is also hugely ironic that Panetta’s announcement came the same day that Congress was holding yet another hearing on the intractable problem of sexual assault in the military. The truth is that women are more likely to be attacked by other members of our military than by any enemy. The New York Times’ Gail Collins makes the unfortunate suggestion that having more women rise in the ranks might,
make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.
Sexual assault in the military is not a woman’s issue. It is an epidemic and a national disgrace that is a direct result of the misguided notion of militarism that posits that strength comes from asserting power over others. Militarism has never been good for women because, among other reasons, it places them in harms way by armies that rape and assault women as a de facto military strategy and because women are more likely to become refugees, unable to support themselves or take care of their families and placing them in further danger of physical and sexual attack.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also makes the argument that more equality will lead to more respect and hence less sexual assault in the ranks, but the military is still a top-down power over structure and women who do serve in lower ranks will continue to be vulnerable. And let’s face it, we live in a country where Congress just failed to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act and where we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment and the Senate has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The disrespect of women’s rights, safety and well-being is a de facto national policy in the U.S.
It is being said that drafting women will inevitably follow and I am not in favor of that any more than I think drafting men is a good thing. Let’s be honest about the mission of the U.S. military. It isn’t to defend this country, there hasn’t been a war for that purpose in my lifetime. Instead we have repeatedly engaged in military operations for the sole purpose of asserting empire and domination.
If the purpose of the military was truly to defend the citizens of this country and make it strong, they would be protecting women from violence in their own ranks and in every city in this country. They would be building up our shorelines to protect us from the inevitable further flooding of climate change. They would be re-building our tattered roads and utilities and installing solar panels so that we do not depend on non-renewable resources (of which incidentally they are one of the biggest users).
But instead, our military serves as the global bully, taking swings at whomever we don’t like at at any particular moment, with little heed to the negative impact that has on us all. And every time there is a war, civilian women who live where the war is being fought are victimized. And here at home more money is poured into the military while social services, education and health care are desperately underfunded and for poor women and women of color we perpetuate the cycle that propels them to join the military for reasons such as getting an education and job training.
So yes, equal rights and benefits are necessary, but not at the expense of condoning a system that requires us to kill and destroy for empire and perpetuates a myriad of harms against women, against men too, and against Mother Earth. That is a false and harmful premise of equality that we must reject.