Chelsea Tafelski: Women in combat

Published: Monday, March 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.

Chelsea Tafelski: Gender Issue Regarding Women in Combat

America has come a long way in ensuring equality among its entire people, but today's society arguably poses a gender equality issue in the workforce.

Military careers have always been generally male dominated but on Jan. 24, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta lifted the ban restricting certain military occupations that only accommodated men, resulting in hundreds of thousands of front-line jobs available to women. Women fighting alongside men will forever change the role and recognition they have in defending our country.

There has always been strong controversy over whether or not women should be allowed in combat, although hundreds of women have found themselves facing battle regardless. The biggest problem that has arose regarding women in combat lies in the question of their physical strength. Many positions in the military require heavy lifting and serious endurance and no exceptions must be made based on gender.

Why did it take so long to break the glass ceiling in the military and what prompted it? There has been some buzz about matters of equal opportunity in Washington, and according to a New York Times article, President Obama spoke about it in his Inaugural Address.

Do people truly believe that the biological difference between men and women is the deciding factor for certain positions, or is there gender discrimination simply because that is the way generations have been molded to think? The gender barrier in the military comes down to a nature (biological make-up) versus nurture (environment/culture) battle.

There is no doubt that the military is a contributor of masculinity in the United States. Americans are still rooted in the traditional belief that the male is the provider and the female is the nurturer but in reality, our society no longer reflects that outlook. A good portion of society is not against women's labor mobility, considering that public opinion polls agreed with lifting the ban.

There is speculation that allowing women to fight will counteract hyper-masculinity (an extreme exaggeration of male stereotypes) in the workforce, which will hopefully break the gender barrier and encourage other businesses to open up more positions for women. According to the Women's Memorial and Diversity Inc., Fortune 500 companies have 4.2 percent women as managers and the military is looking promising as well with 14.6 percent women in active duty.

Even though the majority of society encourages equal opportunities for women there is still the question of whether or not women are physically capable of combat positions. In an effort to find out, each branch of the military has three years to decide what jobs women physically cannot do and ask the defense secretary for an exception.

According to New York Times, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey's reasoning behind this is because he does not want to “sacrifice war-fighting capabilities or the trust of the American people.” The trust of the American people is a thing that is fought hard for and is even harder to maintain. That is why the military and Congress are undergoing extensive steps to ensure the safety and capability of women in the front lines.

Before America was a country, men have been the dominating figures of the societies that helped form ours, and despite all efforts it is hard for some to understand that times have changed. Some men claim that their instincts would tell them to protect a woman which would distract them from the mission's agenda.

However, a counter thought points out that men should learn to control their instincts and adapt to the current situations needs. According to New York Times, one retired general stated that while in combat “living conditions are primal and there is no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions.” History proves the capability of women during the Civil War and World War II where women held combat positions. Women are capable of roughing it and menstrual cycles do not prevent them from doing their jobs anywhere else in the world.

Gender issues in the American work force are pivoting towards equality, and the historical mark women have made in combat brings society one step closer to true gender equality in America. Biological make-up does not necessarily determine what people are capable of.

If the passion and ability to perform a task is present, then gender should not reign as the determining factor of participation. While there is an evident difference in the biological makeup of men and women, it takes extraordinary people to be a part of the military physically and mentally, and that exceptional quality is present in both genders.

These gender issues exist because of how long America has been taught to think a certain way, and right now America is at a turning point where change is necessary and adaptation is vital.

Chelsea Tafelski wrote this column as part of a University of Florida anthropology class, “Sex Roles Cross-Culturally.”

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