By Arielle Klepach
Almost one year ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered all military branches to open combat- arms roles to women. Many view this decision as a step towards increased gender equality, but the shift has not come without a set of key questions that the military must now confront. One of these questions concerns the implementation of gender- neutral standards during military training. Last November, the Marine Corps attempted to address this issue by adapting their physical training test so that both genders would have to perform a minimum number of pull-ups to pass. Previously, women had been allowed to perform a modified version of this test, in lieu of the pull-ups, because they would not need to perform in combat. While this move was intended to establish a gender-neutral standard for determining combat readiness, according to a recent article in The Daily Beast, 55% of female Marine recruits failed to meet the new standard. As a result, the Marine Corps had to backtrack and assess the best way in which to adequately integrate women into combat training. The author, Brian Van Reet, argues, “maintaining separate but equal fitness standards for women is not only inconsistent, it undermines the core value of fairness.” I am inclined to agree. In an age when gender inequality is constantly politicized, our nation stands at a crossroads where it will be forced to either accept certain aspects of gender inequality or to adopt arbitrary standards that both men and women must meet. I find that the military’s conundrum mirrors one prevalent in society as a whole. “Fair” has become synonymous with “best,” but it’s clear that the fairest way may not always be the best way. Our society does and should continue to recognize that men and women are inherently different.
This is not to say that men and women should not have equal opportunities or that it’s impossible to find a solution that is both the fairest and the best way. However, “women’s issues” has become a politicized term encompassing anything and everything that has to do with the way that our society treats women with respect to men. By politicizing half of the population, we’ve forced ourselves into a corner where everything that has to do with women becomes a sensitive subject. As a result, society fails to engage in earnest conversations concerning the issue of gender equality for fear of being politically incorrect or crass.
During the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton was incessantly scrutinized in the media for being too emotional or too womanly because these qualities would automatically presumably make her an inferior leader. Just a few weeks ago, Clinton was publically scrutinized for her choice in hairstyle, again, singling her out among her male counterparts. The portrayal of women in the media is by no means an untouched subject, but this is often because many feel that women should be treated the same as men are – both in the media and otherwise. Documentaries such as Miss Representation, which examines the impact of the dichotomized treatment of the female gender in the media, assert that the media’s portrayal of women is harmful to our youth and to future female leaders. Such documentaries advance that women and men should be portrayed equally and should face the same challenges in the media.
Conversely, nonprofits like EMILY’s List exist for the sole purpose of promoting female leadership in politics because they believe that women can and would make different and better leaders than men. According to this and similar sources, women are inherently more open to compromise and bipartisanship, which is one of several characteristics touted by these groups. According to Political Parity, on average, women sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do and are able to enlist more co-sponsors. Further, across both parties, women are, on average, 31% more effective at advancing legislation and also see success farther into the legislative process. It appears that the American public trusts women to take on key policy-making roles. Political Parity furthers, “Women are ranked higher in public polling than men in five of seven key policymaking areas, including working out compromises, keeping government honest, standing up for what they believe in, and representing constituents’ interests.” Finally, “The American public rates women above or equal to men in seven of eight traits considered crucial for leadership – women are perceived as outgoing, hardworking, honest, intelligent, creative, compassionate, and ambitious.” These groups tout the superiority of women as capable leaders due to our distinct characteristics, yet they are made up of the same people that are opposed and offended by the equal treatment of women in the military.
If we delve deeper into the logic surrounding several “women’s issues,” it becomes obvious that the argument necessitates the assumption that the two genders are distinct. Take the issue of abortion as an example. Pro-choice advocates assert that women should have the right to choose because pregnancy affects their bodies and their lives differently than it would affect a man, regardless of whether or not that man is her husband or long-term partner. Without this recognition of sexual distinction, the argument for a woman’s right to choose falls apart because if the man and woman were equal in the child-bearing experience, then the man would have just as much of a right to decide the fate of the child.
Meanwhile, women and men are held to the same standards in several other areas like academics. My SAT score needed to be just as high even though I am a woman. I take the same tests, write the same papers, and am held to the same standards as men are in the classroom. Society cannot continue to pick and choose the aspects in which women are to be treated as equals and the situations in which they are to be given special treatment. So, my question is, when does the hypocritical dichotomy end?
Entire books and fields of study are dedicated to addressing the two aforementioned examples. Yet, the purpose of this piece is not to make a point about abortion or standards in the classroom; rather, it is to address the existence of an infinite spectrum concerning the role of women in society. This debate has no beginning and no end. This argument is neither anti-feminist nor controversial. I firmly believe that women should be afforded equal opportunities to men. Yet, as we strive for political correctness and sugarcoat reality, we are short-changing every woman in this country by expecting her to fulfill the same role and image as a man. Deciding whether or not men and women are perfectly equal in all respects or accepting that men and women inherently inhabit separate spheres is an unproductive approach to reaching societal standards that are equally beneficial for both men and women. Perhaps it is best to address “gender roles” on a case-by-case basis, for selecting either side of this incredibly broad spectrum is sure to leave at least one group dissatisfied.
This distorted view of reality presents barriers for women and their role in society. As for the American Military, I believe they must tread forward with an eye towards promoting the safest and most effective means of training our men and women in uniform. Their role is, first and foremost, to protect the American people. By establishing different standards for men and women in combat, the military is engaging in a form of affirmative action. And while the merits and disadvantages of affirmative action are still debated today, a public institution like the U.S. Military should not be in the business of advancing individuals into roles for which they are ill suited. By doing this, they are jeopardizing the effectiveness of the military and promoting an agenda that does not necessarily serve the best interest of the American people. I am sure that this is the first of several developments and changes that will occur on this front. The Pentagon recently reported that they are working towards ensuring that there will be women in all combat units by 2016. Yet, at a time when our military is fighting allegations of purposefully misreporting sexual assaults, the role of women in our nation’s military stands at a crossroads much like the one that America faces with respect to its standards for women in different areas of society.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of gregwest98 on Flickr.