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 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)

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The Jewish Women's Archive is collecting oral histories, letters, photographs, and other objects that document the experiences of Jewish American women during the Second World War. Click here to learn about the project and see how you can contribute!

You can also check out this Veteran's Day blog post about Jewish women in the service.

And definitely take a look at our Discover: In Focus feature on Jewish Women in the Military.

Your focus on Jewish women from World War II is instructive -- that war saw the roots of many shifts in society in this country and elsewhere. I would love to hear more about Jewish women from that era.

Here are some letters to the editor in response to the New York Times article. They bring up a lot of different points, opinions, and angles. Definitely worth a look through.

It raises an interesting aspect to the "clash of cultures" debate. Third world (male) soldiers squaring off against first world women warriors. A bullet makes no distinction. But what happens when a women soldier is captured, intact or wounded? What would follow such a headline event? Would the special attention require a special response? Would the American response require a unique action? Such a prisoner would have extra 'hostage value' and would become the center of world wide attention. And, what would happen if that women was Jewish, now in militant Muslim hands?

While a bullet makes no distinction, our pride would.

I fear what might follow such an event.

A quick survey of biblical sources reminds one of the prophetess Deborah who led the Israelites against the Philistines? Then, of course, there was Judith who slew the general Holfernes. Jewish history is hardly unique in having women soldiers or general.

The issue with women in combat seems to have everything to do with culture. Every Chanukah we talk about Hannah who watched her children murdered, and then was murdered herself. Martyrdom is equal opportunity in Jewish tradition.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Women in the military and the right to get hurt." 19 August 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/righttogethurt>.

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