Whether or Not Women Are Allowed in Combat, the Military Serves the Patriarchy

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“The question is, will we change the physical fitness requirements so that we don’t have a ‘disparate impact?’ Are we going to ‘gender norm’ the requirements?”
These were the sentiments of columnist George Will in regard to the recent lifting of the ban on women in front-line combat situations. What is remarkable about his statements is that they echo the growing concern of numerous critics who feverishly oppose women in combat right next to their male counterparts. Typically, they cite “physical strength” and “emotional resolve” as core reasons to the notion that women absolutely cannot perform combat tasks equal to those of men. So the argument to be made is that women will produce a disparate, inferior performance on the battlefield, thus endangering the lives of fellow combatants and jeopardizing military strategy and execution. However, this line of reasoning actually serves as an excuse to distract people from the deeply embedded patriarchal reasons that critics of this new decision prefer to uphold and that the military has indeed upheld since its inception.
If physical strength or physical stature was really the driving issue behind much of this criticism, we should then expect many men of small stature to be denied entry into combat zones, as well. However, that is not that case. In fact, many US Marines will tell you that training, conditioning and analytic skill trump the significance of their own size and strength or an opponent’s size and strength. With that said, even though men may tend to have more upper-body strength than women on average, it would be a mistake to say that women don’t possess more than enough upper body strength to adequately perform combat tasks. So, in regard to the Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test (CFT), there is no reason that women couldn’t meet the male standard requirements, let alone the female standard requirements. In fact, the physical challenge of the CFT pales in comparison to that of professional female athletes’ physical training across an array of sports and activities. Just take, for example, the women who participate in the CrossFit competition each year. They compete in high-intensity weight lifting and conditioning events such as sprinting, rowing, jumping, climbing, tire flipping and carrying heavy objects. Or take, for another example, all female Olympic athletes, female professional sports athletes, female weight-lifting competitors, female law enforcement officers, etcetera. Clearly, they prove that women are more than capable of performing physical activities at very high levels. So why might some people consider it okay for women to display their physical talents on a sports field for recreation and competitive purposes, but not in combat on a battlefield? Because, as Will conveniently left out in his previous statement, physical combat is already “gender normed.” Women have historically been excluded – not on the basis of size and strength – but on the basis of gender.

Essentially, there are two main patriarchal reasons for the opposition to women being permitted in frontline combat zones. First is the issue of gender roles, but particularly, women’s role in society. Traditional women’s roles can generally be described as sets of social expectations, possibilities, and capabilities within a particular patriarchal framework. Each set of expectations, possibilities and capabilities gets defined in relation to the patriarchal framework, which in turn has specific ramifications for individual female bodies. So historically, it has been expected of women to be the primary caretakers of children in the home, to socialize those children into the dominant framework and to adhere to “feminine assignments” (such as dainty appearances and submissive behaviors). Women were also expected to be dependent upon men (specifically in economic matters, but especially in combat matters). Social institutions such as the economy, the state and the military viewed women as physically weak, dependent persons whose primary purpose was to perform domestic tasks and reproduce dominant social norms at home. In a certain sense, women needed to be “protected” so that they could continue to socialize their children in accordance with dominant economic, gender and racial interests. Since men were (and still are) characterized as physically dominant and strong (amongst a plethora of other social attributes), they would be the best candidates to serve in military combat on behalf of the dominant interests of the framework. Under this guise, a woman’s role absolutely would not be at all suited for combat on a battlefield, of all places.

So, the notion that women aren’t suited for combat stems not from a natural or biological standpoint but from a socially constructed, restrictive patriarchal framework. It’s an extraordinarily narrow frame which limits and defines women (as well as men) only in relation to suiting its own interests. So, not only is it wrong to universally claim that women cannot perform equally to men on the battlefield, but it’s not even empirically true within the patriarchal framework itself (as evidenced by the physical capabilities of female athletes)! And outside of the patriarchal framework, women’s roles, possibilities and capabilities would likely become defined in a much more expansive way that doesn’t subordinate them on different levels. 

Secondly, aside from women’s gender roles, there is also the patriarchal issue of trustworthiness. Could a woman or a female body actually be trusted to carry out important patriarchal interests in the form of military missions? And can a woman be trusted to do so as well as a man? Those in the media who subscribe to this patriarchal constructed reality and who can define reality only in the traditional terms within which they were socialized will absolutely not trust a woman to carry out a “man’s job,” so to speak. Ironically however, even though women’s roles have indeed changed over time, there are those critics who cannot see the bigger picture (perhaps because they’ve been socialized to view reality through a very narrow scope in the first place) whereby women now can contribute to sustaining patriarchal (and maybe more importantly capitalist) power in newly constructed capacities. In which case, the Department of Defense didn’t necessarily lift this ban in the name of genuine equality, but perhaps the underlying motivation was to say, “Why not now use previously excluded people to further enhance particular, dominant interests.” Along those lines, critics of this decision may want to reconsider their stance.

So, let’s not be distracted by rhetoric about reduced fitness requirements and physical strength. That acts as a means to shift focus away from the real issues at hand: dominant social structure and dominant social interests. There exists an interplay between the dominant systems of patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy. Most of us are socialized not to recognize these large-level structures, and that is no coincidence. Because these systems are social constructs – as opposed to ossified or crystallized systems – their nature is malleable or changeable, and, thus, vulnerable. Their invisibility acts as another means to maintain specific social order and inequality. However, we can use instances such as the issue concerning women in combat to really look at the underlying causes of inequality and begin to expose, understand, and challenge the systems of domination that aim to accelerate inequality. From there, who knows what types of expanded self-definition we can come up with in a reality less bound to restrictive and delusive frameworks.