‘No Exceptions’ Will End ‘Separate but Equal’ for Women

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with and takes questions from U.S. Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade at the Estonian 1st Brigade Headquarters in Tapa, Estonia, Sept. 15, 2015. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with and takes questions from U.S. Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade at the Estonian 1st Brigade Headquarters in Tapa, Estonia, Sept. 15, 2015. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Commentary by Karen Parrish, DoD News

Recently, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced his decision to open all military jobs to women. There will be, he said, “no exceptions.”

As a former soldier and current defense civilian who is also a woman, I am delighted, not just on behalf of the women now serving and who will serve in uniform, but for the force as a whole.

Gender and the Military

As the secretary noted in his announcement, he based his decision on results from three years of study on the part of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Those studies, ordered by then-Secretary Leon Panetta in 2013, included analysis of the physical demands required by each job offered to military recruits. The objective was to establish gender-neutral performance standards and offer more opportunities to women.

That alone represented a pronounced shift in focus, even a major advance in institutional thinking. The “no exceptions” ruling goes further, and in my view brings to bear a new philosophy for the U.S. military.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Megan Garcia provides security during a key leader engagement with the director of women's affairs in Farah city of the Farah province of Afghanistan Jan. 29, 2013. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman Josh Ives

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Megan Garcia provides security during a key leader engagement with the director of women’s affairs in Farah city of the Farah province of Afghanistan Jan. 29, 2013. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman Josh Ives

An overstatement? Consider this: how often has a man been denied a job because of his gender? Yet throughout the force’s history, policy and law have fenced off women from arguably some of the most vital career fields the U.S. military has – and with them some significant pay and advancement opportunities – based on gender alone.

Not anymore. That fence is down, though the services are now planning the recruitment, training and other “integration” requirements Carter discussed. So, you won’t see women infantry or armor officers or enlisted troops tomorrow. But the road to military job equality will be paved and open to women for the first time ever.

No Quotas, Just Opportunity

Carter emphasized that “no exceptions” is based on standards. Many women, like some men, will not meet the physical requirements of some jobs. But now they will be free to try.

The secretary indicated that some career fields will likely see small female participation even after integration is complete. But eliminating a guaranteed male-only environment in specialties formerly closed to women will enable the philosophical change I’m predicting, from “women serve, too” to “women can be warriors.”

Women as Warriors?

In my lifetime – which is about twice as long as most of those now serving in uniform – the question of whether women could or should serve in hazardous and arduous military occupations has gone from non-issue to moot point.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jennifer Marchese, with 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron-Bravo Sector, scans an Afghan woman's iris in the waiting area of the Egyptian Hospital in the Parwan province of Afghanistan Sept. 5, 2010, prior to the woman being seen. DoD photo by U.S. Army Spc. Kristina L. Gupton

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jennifer Marchese, with 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron-Bravo Sector, scans an Afghan woman’s iris in the waiting area of the Egyptian Hospital in the Parwan province of Afghanistan Sept. 5, 2010, prior to the woman being seen. DoD photo by U.S. Army Spc. Kristina L. Gupton

Nowadays, they can and they have. Women serve on female engagement teams, as submariners and fighter pilots, and three so far have completed the Army’s Ranger School. They have proven their capability, and they deserve the new opportunities Carter’s decision will offer them.

My mother served in the Women’s Army Corps in the early 1960s. She met my father in Germany, where he was a regular Army soldier. But their experiences were quite different.

Her training, she once told me, included lessons in hairstyling and makeup application. She was not required to fire a weapon. And after she married my father and was about to have her first child, she had to leave the service. Women with children were not allowed to serve.

Separate but Equal

When I joined in the early 1990s, things were better for women. My training required me to qualify with my assigned weapon and to meet the Army’s physical training standards, and I left basic with a new sense of my own capabilities.

But then I went to Fort Benning, my first duty assignment. My orders – as a 46Q, print journalist – assigned me to a field artillery brigade. That was an error, though – women weren’t allowed in that unit.

Benning was then as now “the home of the infantry,” though it has since also become the Army’s armor training base. We had light infantry troops, “Bradley guys” – the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was new then – and the Rangers.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Mary Walls, right, an ammo technician, and Sahar, a linguist, speak with Afghan women during a patrol with Marines from 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Musa Qa'leh, Afghanistan, Aug. 2, 2010. DoD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Mary Walls, right, an ammo technician, and Sahar, a linguist, speak with Afghan women during a patrol with Marines from 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Musa Qa’leh, Afghanistan, Aug. 2, 2010. DoD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres

No women were allowed in any of those units. Only 8 percent of the soldiers and officers at Fort Benning were women. I can’t recall ever seeing a female sergeant major or general officer there. But there was an annual association-sponsored beauty contest, open to female soldiers. The winner received a tiara, among other trinkets.

Even during those years, there was debate about opening more jobs to women. A frequent comment I heard from male soldiers was “not in my Army.”

I believe those attitudes have largely evolved among today’s troops, who have trained, deployed, fought and in some cases died in mixed-gender groups. I sense a greater level of respect among the males for their female counterparts.

So the “not in my Army” attitude toward women may be a relic. But if anyone said it now, a female soldier could fairly respond: “It’s not just your Army anymore.”

Across the force, across the services, change is coming that will deepen and strengthen the nation’s defense. Women will be integrated into every corner of the military – and like all who currently serve, they may never have been needed more.

Editor’s Note: Karen Parrish is a writer for DoD News at the Defense Media Activity. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

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