View Full Version : Gender equality in military debated

10-24-08, 06:14 AM
Friday, October 24, 2008
Gender equality in military debated
Women cannot hold some posts in U.S. forces, angering advocates of same treatment for sexes.
Jerome L. Sherman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Staff Sgt. Tabitha Williams completed basic training for the U.S. Marine Corps at Parris Island, S.C., it was the proudest moment of her life.

The 13-week course -- the longest of any military branch -- ends with the Crucible, three days of sleep and food deprivation and obstacles that both men and women must overcome.

"I realized I could do anything I wanted to do," said Williams, 27, a 5-foot-tall Marine recruiter who had the nickname "Little Tabby" as a teenager in eastern Pennsylvania.

Today, the Marine Corps has more than 11,000 women in uniform, including more than 1,100 officers. About 200,000 women serve in active duty posts in the armed services, and make up 14 percent of the U.S. military force.

Yet Williams and her fellow female soldiers and Marines are far from being able to do "anything" in the military, a fact that irritates proponents of full gender equality.

The Department of Defense prohibits women from serving with the infantry, special forces, armor, field artillery and on submarines.

But the nature of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has made some of those prohibitions obsolete, with insurgents targeting support units and putting all military personnel in harm's way, argues Lory Manning, a project director for the Women's Research & Education Institute in Arlington, Va.

Female medics, for example, sometimes accompany combat units into battle. And special forces teams bring female soldiers on missions to help them question Muslim women who are reluctant to cooperate with male soldiers.

Two women have won the Silver Star medal for valor in combat in the war on terror, the first to do so since World War II. Nearly 100 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These women aren't asking for special privileges," said Manning, a Navy veteran. "We think women and men should be allowed to do any job they are physically qualified to do."

Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the "Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces," convened by President George H.W. Bush, has sharply criticized both the Pentagon and Congress for allowing these changes to take place without public debate.

"It's a cultural shift. It does concern me quite a bit," she said. "These women are patriotic. They're courageous. But we should not ask of our women and the military more than is realistic."

Donnelly, who heads the nonpartisan Center for Military Readiness, argues that ordering women to serve in combat is lowering standards and creating resentment among male soldiers. "There are differences between men and women where physical strength is an issue."

That's a point Manning, a Navy veteran, disputes.

"There are some pretty strapping women out there," she said.

When Manning joined the military in 1969, few positions were open to women. None could have command authority over men, nor serve on Navy craft, except hospital ships and some transport vessels.

By the time Manning retired 25 years later, more than 40,000 women had served in the first Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. Thirteen were killed and two became prisoners.

In the first three years after the war, Congress allowed women onto combat aircraft and most Navy combat ships. Defense Secretary Les Aspin issued a rule for all women in the military, only keeping them from serving in units whose mission is direct ground combat.