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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that the Pentagon is lifting its ban on American military women in serving in combat is notable in so far as it represents another step in rolling back masculine privilege in a major U.S. public institution.
But does allowing women equal opportunity to kill in the name of “national security” amount to genuine liberation?
I don’t think so.
In a country whose popular culture is as profoundly militarized as ours (think Junior ROTC in high schools, think B-22 fly-overs at the opening of the NFL season), it is all too easy to militarize even women’s liberation.
Militarization happens any time that the protection of women’s rights is either justified by appealing to military necessity or measured in terms of women’s participation in war-waging.
Neither those women nor those men deployed in wartime combat should be imagined by the rest of us as “the real heroes” or the “real patriots.” Infantry bunkers and fighter plane cockpits should not be where genuine “first class citizens” are cultivated.
This feminist caveat, though, does not mean that lifting the Pentagon’s artificial ban is insignificant. The military remains one of the most powerful political and cultural institutions in contemporary America. Its influence can be seen in our lopsided federal budget, in our entertainment and sports industries, in our science and technology, in our schools and in our Congress.
An institution this powerful cannot be permitted to sustain its entrenched masculinized culture. This, after all, is the same institutional culture that has rewarded mid-level and senior officers for ignoring American male soldiers’ sexual assaults on their female comrades (as documented in the Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” ).
Furthermore, the U.S. is not a world leader in ending the male-only combat rule. Canada ended its ban in 1989; the militaries of the Netherlands and Australia have lifted their bans. The U.S. is just playing international catch-up.
Finally, the news coverage given to Panetta’s announcement is misleading. The Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have not suddenly awoken to the evils of sexism of their own accord. They have been pushed relentlessly. The lifting of the ban is the result of 30 years of women activists’ strategizing and campaigning.
Activists such as Lory Manning and Carolyn Becraft of the Women’s Research and Education Institute, and Nancy Duff Campbell and Holly Hemphill of the National Women’s Law Center, along with energetic members of the Servicewomen’s Action Network deserve the credit for forcing the Pentagon’s hand.
One should never imagine that any major change in any powerful institution happens without the work of determined, smart social movement activists.
Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University and the author of Maneuvers: The Militarization of Women’s Lives (2000) and Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (2010).