The Feminist Objection to Women in Combat

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One of the male patriarchal values that has been consistently criticized by feminists is war.

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Women demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War line the street in New York City on May 10, 1967 (AP Images)

This week the Pentagon altered its policy prohibiting women from serving in combat roles in the US military. This has generally been seen as a win for feminism by feminists themselves. It's also been seen as a feminist victory by conservative folks like Heather Mac Donald at National Review, who declares with hyperbolic outrage that "the only reason to pursue [the policy of women in combat] is to placate feminism's insatiable and narcissistic drive for absolute official equality between the sexes."

I'm a feminist myself, and I certainly think that women should have equal access to jobs and career advancement inside the military as well as outside it. And, as the Jezebel article I linked above points out, women are already often in combat situations. Acknowledging this formally just means that they're able to get the same credit for risking their lives that men do.

Still, while the change is certainly, and deservedly, a win for feminism, it is just as certainly a mixed one. On the one hand, the achievement of equality for women in the military highlights just how successful feminism in the United States has been in one of its primary goals—achieving equality. As Jean Bethke Elshtain argued in Women and War, military combat is, in some sense, the defining male role. Exclusion from combat, has, in turn, been one of the defining traits of femininity. A military policy that recognizes women's participation in, and capacity for, combat, is, then, an important assertion that people are not their gender roles. It shows that women really can, and should be allowed to, do everything and anything that men can.

The problem is, feminism has never just been about equality. Many feminists have written about the need for women to have the same opportunities as men. But many have also written about the need to criticize male patriarchal values and ideals. And one of the male patriarchal values and ideals that has been consistently criticized and questioned by feminists is war.

One famous works of pacifist feminism is Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. In that book, she argues that:

though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's. Law and practice have developed that difference, whether innate or accidental. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to judge what we do not share.

How then are we to understand your problem, and if we cannot, how can we answer your question, how to prevent war? The answer based upon our experience and our psychology—Why fight?—is not an answer of any value. Obviously there is for you some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting which we have never felt or enjoyed. Complete understanding could only be achieved by blood transfusion and memory transfusion—a miracle still beyond the reach of science.

Woolf is, of course, mistaken. As many women soldiers, not to mention women politicians, have shown, women can be every bit as attracted to war as men. The glory, necessity, and satisfaction of fighting is not by any means restricted to one gender.

But Woolf is also right. The history of combat may not be entirely male, but it is overwhelmingly male. And that fact is not merely an inequality; it is a resource. Yes, you can look at the exclusion of women from combat and say, "This is unfair; women should be allowed to fight." But you can also look at that exclusion and say, "You know, half of humanity has been excluded from going to war. If that many people weren't fighting, maybe that means that fighting is an aberration rather than a necessity."

Woolf is also correct, I think, to suggest that the glory and necessity of war is often linked to masculinity—to the need to prove one's moral worth as a man. From one perspective, that is also the reason why it's so important that women be allowed in the military and in combat. War is in many ways our standard for moral action. America's status as an ethical nation is linked to its people's willingness to fight and die in righteous wars, as Stanley Hauerwas has argued recently in War and the American Difference.

If that's the case, if morality is tied to battle, then women too must fight if they are to be valued and honored as moral actors. When war is so central to our moral experience, those who are not warriors cannot be equal. This is why feminist cultural icons like Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen are so often warriors. And it's also why equality in the military has been such a vital goal for so many marginalized groups. Black units fighting in the Civil War were a tremendous boost for anti-racism and equality. Similarly, it will be increasingly difficult to justify discrimination against gay people now that they are openly fighting and dying for our country.

Feminism, then, can draw moral force from the military. But that moral force comes at a price. That price is the moral force itself—or, more precisely, the acquiescence to war as a moral force and a moral standard. For Virginia Woolf, war was to be judged by women's experience—and found wanting. American feminism, on the other hand, seems much more comfortable judging women's experiences in relation to traditionally male standards of empowerment—of which military combat is a particularly iconic example. In popular discussions, feminist criticism of militarism and war has largely been lost. As a result, we have one fewer way to protest when our sons, and our daughters too, are sacrificed on the moral altar of war.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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