Thursday, September 24, 2009

“I don’t see a female. I see a soldier”

Last Tuesday, Sergeant Major Theresa L. King became the first female commandant of a drill sergeant school. In a New York Times story, Sergeant King said, “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a female. I see a soldier.”

Still Seeing a “Female,” not a “Soldier”

Unfortunately, Sergeant King’s comrades do not share her de-gendered perception of soldiers. Sergeant Sarah Scully writes, “In the Army, any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed and treated as inferior. The perceived inferiority of female soldiers makes women targets of sexual violence.

Last July, a Congresswoman Jane Harman reported that “Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq. According to recent studies, 41% of female soldiers have been sexual assaulted and 29% have been raped while serving in the armed forces. In most of these cases, rapists target younger, or lower-ranking women. As a result, 90% of rape victims in the Army are junior-ranking women.

“Blatant Sexism and Misogyny”

Female veterans attribute the epidemic of sexual violence to “blatant sexism and misogyny” in the military.

A female sergeant suggested that some misogynistic cadences (marching songs) are “crafted to engender men’s rage at women. For example, at the Naval Academy, recruits used to sing, “Who can take a chainsaw/Cut the bitch in two/Fuck the bottom half/And give the upper half to you. To see more examples of military cadences, click here.

A female Army Specialist complained that a fellow soldier described female soldiers as “eye candy” sent over to “keep the guys sane.” This soldier explained that the female soldier’s role in Iraq was analogous to the prostitute’s role in Vietnam. Read her story here.

Columnist, Helen Benedict points out that “civilian women have been seen as sexual booty for conquering soldiers since the beginning of human history. So, it should come as no surprise that the sexual persecution of female soldiers has been going on in the armed forces for decades.” To read Benedict’s column, click here.

Inadequate Legal Recourse?

Even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice criminalizes rape, “there is anecdotal evidence of some continuing failure to enforce those laws. To read the stories about female soldiers who were penalized for reporting rapes, click here.

Statistical evidence paints a similarly dark picture. One year, 2,212 female soldiers reported sexual assaults. The military referred 181 of these reports to court martial. The military took “unspecified action” in another 419 reports, which included “anything from punishment to dismissal.” It is not clear what the military did with the other 1,613 reports of sexual assault, nor is it clear how many incidences of sexual assault were not reported at all. To see more statistics, click here.

Looking Forward

The military must provide legal recourse for victims of sexual assault. In 2005, the Pentagon reformed the military’s procedures for reporting sexual assaults. Next, the Pentagon needs to reform procedures for investigating reports and enforcing rape laws. Currently, Congresswoman Harman is working to pass a bipartisan bill to “halt rape and sexual assault in the military.” To read more about Harman's bill, click here.

But legal reform will take time. For now, promoting Sergeant King to commandant of a drill sergeant school is a step in the right direction. Sergeant King’s promotion debunks the misogynistic notion that female soldiers are “eye candy” or “sexual prey.” After all, it would be hard to view a woman as your inferior when she’s ordering you to “Drop and give her 20!” A female boot in a male recruit’s neck could do more to cure the epidemic of military misogyny than a decade of legal reforms. Hoorah!


Erin S. said...

I think the titular quote is actually kind of ironic in light of Sarah Scully's statement that "any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed". It seems like King seeing a soldier rather than a woman also means she's erased femaleness from her identity in order to succeed in the hypermasculine environment of the military.

The problem with expecting the promotion of a few women within the military to change the institutional power structure is that such women are likely to be viewed as "exceptional"--i.e. exceptions to the rule--rather than representative. It's similar to the hope that electing Obama as president will lead to a "post-racial" society. The military needs to do a lot more than just promote a few women to eliminate the endemic misogyny, sexism, and violence against women in the ranks.

Erin S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erin S. said...

Oops, I guess I should have said I agree with this post.

Anne Kildare said...

I hope I didn't leave bloggers with the impression that Sergeant King's promotion will bring an end to misogyny and sexual violence in the armed forces. The military has a long way to go. But I stand by my assertion that Sergeant King's promotion is a step in the right direction. Sergeant King might be the "exception to the rule," but that shouldn't undermine her accomplishment.

Erin S. and the author of "Want to succeed in the Army? Be masculine, but not too masculine" bring up an interesting point. When I was reading Sergeant King's New York Times article, I wondered how much King had to downplay her femininity to succeed in the military. I wondered whether I should be angry that Sergeant King viewed herself as a "soldier" instead of a "female." But then I realized I didn't care.

Sergeant King fulfills some gender stereotypes and defies others. As far as I can tell, the Army promoted her because she was the best soldier for the job, not because she was "masculine, but not too masculine."

Would feminists be happier if the Army promoted a "hyperfeminine" woman instead of Sergeant King? Would women in the military be better off if Sergeant King were less androgynous? Aside from promoting women to positions of power, what can the military be doing to ensure that female soldiers are treated with respect? I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts...