Women in the military and the right to get hurt
World War II brought changes for women on many fronts, including the enlistment of women in the Armed Forces. The establishment of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in May of 1942 was a transformational moment in women's history. Twelve of the original graduating class were Jewish. In the years since then, the number and the importance of women in the military have steadily increased, resulting in a series of "firsts" and accomplishments. The coming of the all-volunteer army in 1973 had a huge impact, and according to the New York Times, women have passed a new milestone in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as they prove themselves not only capable, but indispensible, in combat.
Thinking about this topic, I looked at the ‘In Focus’ feature on jwa.org and learned that Jewish women have a strong tradition of military trailblazing. In 1943, Miranda "Randy" Bloch enlisted in the women Marine Corps and was one of the few women marines to be issued flight orders. That same year, Selma Cronan joined the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots): the first female aviators to fly military assignments within the continental United States. Jewish women also showed their mettle in Desert Storm, when soldiers like U.S. Marines Captain Cindy Gats and U.S. Air Force Captain Lisa Stein continued to practice Judaism in anti-Semitic Saudi Arabia. Captain Stein logged over 1,800 hours of combat flight time by 1990, in spite of the fact that at the time women were prohibited from flying combat missions.
Present policy bars women from direct combat. They are allowed to lead male troops into combat as officers, but only as officers. However, thanks to what the Times calls "bureaucratic trickery" of higher-ups in the Army, female soldiers have been performing combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan for some time now. Lizette Alvarez argues that actually seeing women succeed in these dangerous positions has changed attitudes within the military. The resistance to women in combat appears to be coming from outside the military community, not within.
The idea of opening combat jobs to women is still somewhat controversial. After all, combat positions are dangerous and carry with them serious risks, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, injury, or death. Those risks have historically been seen as a male burden, but perhaps they are actually male privilege. Today, women in the military are fighting for the right to take those same risks.
At the root of the resistance to women in combat is a cultural discomfort with exposing women to violence and death, resulting in an inability to differentiate between "protecting" women and limited their choices. This highlights one of the last barriers to gender equality: the right to put oneself in physical danger.
The reality is that women (think Rose Schneiderman and Emma Goldman) have been risking physical danger for years; putting themselves on the front lines of labor struggles, civil rights protests, and social justice activism. In this context, it seems medieval that women in the military do not have the rights to do the same.
We are comfortable fighting for equal rights to agency, safety, and success. It can seem a little strange or scary, on the other hand, to fight for the right to risk injury, pain, disfigurement, or death. We recognize, however, that equality is all-encompassing and thanks to our women in the military, we are winning the right to get hurt.
Photo: Selma Cronan at Avenger Field. (Texas, 1944)