The Unexpected Argument Some Feminists Are Making for Keeping Women Out of Military Combat


When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Thursday that the U.S. military would open all positions to women, many people called it a win for gender equality. That an opposing camp came forward to argue women aren't as strong or as capable of fighting alongside men came as no surprise. 

But what few could have predicted was the rise of a feminist argument opposing Carter's decision.

"For me, the most important question when it comes to women in combat has to do with the hidden anti-feminist economies of militarism," Kim Tran, a gender and woman's studies graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, told Mic.

Tran has been publicly railing against the inclusion of women in combat since 2013, when she wrote a piece for the Feminist Wire after then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the first moves toward removing the ban.

"Considering the ways American militarism disenfranchises and perpetrates violence against communities of color and women specifically, we may want to reconsider the inclusion of women on the front lines of battle a feminist advancement," she wrote at the time. Today, Tran said she sticks by her argument more than ever. 

"For me, the most important question when it comes to women in combat has to do with the hidden anti-feminist economies of militarism."

"I think that when we talk about equality in the United States, when it comes to gender, we're not asking ourselves, 'Equality for what purposes?'" she told Mic. "Women in combat can be seen as a cause for gender equality but what we do when we take the purely celebratory stance is deny a couple of things, which is the rate of sexual assault in the military itself [and] the level of sexual violence in military-occupied countries." 

According to the Department of Defense's Annual Report on Sexual Assault, in 2014 there were 5,983 reports of sexual assault in the military involving "service members as either a victim or a subject."

Department of Defense

Ninotchka Rosca, a member of the Filipina transnational feminist organization AF3IRM, told Mic that while the group supports greater opportunities for women, she's bothered by these statistics. "We think that before there are decisions made with regards to greater risks for women in the military, the issue of sexual violence against women in the military perpetrated by their own colleagues should be resolved," she said.

Cracking the "Brass" Ceiling

Since 2012, attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union have been working toward integration via a lawsuit against former U.S. defense secretaries Panetta and Chuck Hagel. While the organization acknowledges there is more work to be done, especially with regard to sexual assault, Thursday's news meant the end of a three-year legal battle for the ACLU.

"We were thrilled," Vania Leveille, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, told Mic. "Women have been serving on the front lines for years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this recognizes what they have been doing. ... No one should be judged on gender alone." 

It was Army Col. Ellen Haring who first brought the issue to the desks of the ACLU. Haring, who now works for the Combat Integration Initiative, said she was fed up when she maxed out her ranking at colonel and, alongside a fellow woman service member, chose legal action. Five months later, the ACLU took on their case and added four other plaintiffs, two of whom were Purple Hearts recipients.

"Women have been serving on the front lines for years in Iraq and Afghanistan and this recognizes what they have been doing."

"The military was the last place anywhere in our government where women could be discriminated against just for being women," she told Mic. "I didn't even realize there was a 'brass ceiling' until I got to more senior ranks." Before last week, Haring said, women were only allowed to choose positions from combat "support" branches which prevented women from getting promoted past a certain level, since high-ranking positions require combat experience. 

With regard to the sexual assault problem, Haring argues that the equal status will reduce such incidences. "If they're allowed to serve in the same positions, women will be viewed and treated more equally," she said. "Senior women officers will certainly change the composition and likely the culture of the organization."

Mic/Ellen Haring

"All of the things we know about diversity show it improves organizations across the board," she said, citing a number of studies in which researchers created groups and assigned each group a task. The findings showed that co-ed groups performed the tasks better than single-sex groups. "That tells me that single-gender organizations are not nearly as smart and capable as they could be," she said.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Equality

The idea of transforming an institution from the inside is still suspect to Tran, who sees "equality" as a misnomer. "My feminism isn't limited to accomplishing equality with men in professional and public capacities," she said. "Feminism in part has a lot to do with anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Making militarism appealing to other people who have been historically excluded from it serves a number of functions. One of them is to cloak imperialism in the language and the rhetoric of gender equality." Allowing more people to join the military, for Tran (who also cited the 2010 repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell), means expanding the U.S.'s capacity to occupy other countries.

"Equality has become a euphemism, a substitute word, for the actual inequality that's being done," Rosca said. As a group that represents women of more than one culture or language, AF3IRM includes many women who Rosca says have been displaced by war in their home countries. "We're trying to develop a strong voice for them and trying to develop a feminist theory based on their experience," she said. "That means including colonialism and imperialism in the conversation." 

But these stances don't mean Rosca and Tran don't offer their support to the women (and men) serving in the U.S. military. As Tran said, "I would say the same thing that I said at the beginning of the war in Iraq: You can definitely support the troops and the people who are laying their lives on the line in the name of a country they believe in, and that's not to deny the human cost of war."