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Many Army women are puzzled when they see feminists in the media pushing to open up combat roles to women, because they are unaware of any military women who are interested in such roles.(1) These feminist activists accept the policy for men as the standard and seek to apply that policy to women. Thus they support making women eligible for the draft and assigning them to combat arms, even on a non-voluntary basis if necessary.
Many Army women, however, believe that lobbying for compulsory service for women is regressive, and instead maintain that serving in the military and in a combat role should be voluntary for both men and women. When pressed to choose between the current exclusion of women from the combat arms and a policy that would assign women the way men are now assigned, women soldiers tend to support the status quo. Ultimately, though, most Army women support a policy matching Army needs with the women's choices, skills, and abilities. This is the basic formula used to assign men to occupational specialties.
In this article I present the public arguments of the feminists who act as advocates for military women and then explain the gap between these arguments and Army women's beliefs. I find it problematic, yet understandable, that feminist activists choose an agenda that achieves consistency yet fails to convey the preferences of the women for whom they claim to speak. Here, activists must choose between the competing goals of creating a debatable rhetoric and representing the sometimes contradictory wishes of women. Yet, when only one feminist agenda has the floor, women whose views are ignored feel alienated from the very feminist movement that struggles to reach them.
Many Army women maintain a belief system regarding gender that accounts for the influence of biological differences and disparate socialization of the sexes but does not fall prey to entirely determinist or social construction arguments. These women call for an end to gender-based policy and object to studies that treat gender as the only salient variable in their environment. Army women tend to reject arguments that women and men have the same abilities, but they also refuse to support policy decisions based on generalizations about the average man or woman. They think the military hierarchy and division of labor should be based on evaluations of good and bad leaders, skilled technicians and able communicators, small agile soldiers and soldiers with brute strength. If women were subsequently underrepresented in some fields, they would say, so be it. Many women soldiers believe that women who enjoy traditionally female occupations should not be ashamed of their jobs or forced into traditionally male occupations to meet a quota or prove a feminist point.
Leading the movement for policy changes in the armed forces are feminist activists who claim to represent the interests of all military women, but who actually represent only one segment of Army women. Army women whose beliefs match those of the activists tend to be officers and/or white. Enlisted women and women of color are more likely to support opening options for women's service, but prefer that either the conditions of service remain unequal or suggest bringing men's policy more in line with women's. Thus, Army women are less likely to support assigning women to the combat arms, although they support a voluntary option for women who are willing and capable of serving. Minority women in particular have less reason to believe activists' argument that full integration of military women will result in first-class citizenship status for women in American society, because a similar prophecy did not come true for African Americans as a result of black soldiers' sacrifices in times of war.
To move forward the rather repetitious debates on women's roles in the military, I reveal in this article how feminist activists may improve their strategies. Feminist arguments that are based on individual rights but do not mention women as serving organizational needs may not speak effectively to an institution that subsumes individual rights for the "greater good." By treating gender differences as entirely socially constructed, activists have failed to equip military women with the tools to understand physical differences or to challenge arguments based on those differences. By simultaneously portraying women soldiers as helpless victims of sexual harassment and yet potentially fierce warriors in battle, activists have put forth contradictory images that undermine their efforts. Because activists often treat the military culture's ideal man as accurately reflecting all military men, activists have not yet identified and taken advantage of men who do not fit the stereotype and who would support their goals. Furthermore, they alienate women who simply do not find their male coworkers to be "the enemy."
There is a policy option that has previously been rejected by feminists and conservatives alike, but is a compromise and a step forward with which most military women (and a number of military men) would agree. This choice is to open combat roles to women on a voluntary basis and implement physical screening tests that ensure only qualified men and women are admitted. Although the voluntary option is still a double standard for men and women, it is much less so than the status quo, and it would make the feminist point that not all women are unfit for jobs that demand upper-body strength, and not all men are qualified simply because they are men.
The data presented in the text come from multiple waves of field research of active-duty Army soldiers from early 1992 to late 1994. I used a multimethod strategy that captured both large-scale attitudinal patterns and individual viewpoints. To collect the data, I traveled to eight stateside Army posts and two national training centers where soldiers conduct war games on a simulated battlefield. I also surveyed troops stationed at U.S. bases in Germany and lived in Army encampments for ten days in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope (March 1993), for seven days in Macedonia during Operation Able Sentry (July 1994), and for six days in Haiti during Operation Uphold Democracy (October 1994).
I collected qualitative data through participant observation, one-on-one unstructured interviews, discussion groups, and informal conversations with soldiers. There was no formal interview schedule; rather I carried a short list of topics I was interested in and to which I could steer the discussion. Some discussions were only fifteen minutes, taken up, for example, while waiting in line for dinner; others lasted one to two hours during scheduled interview time or during meals. As I toured different work sites on post or during overseas operations, I was permitted to approach and interview people as they worked. I was able to spend several hours talking with soldiers who were my escorts or with whom I shared accommodations at night.
I also collected large-scale survey data in order to analyze the relationships between soldiers' demographics and their attitudes on a wide range of issues. The ethnographic data were cross-validated by multiple waves of questionnaires totaling over 4,100. The setting for administering questionnaires varied by site. At stateside posts, soldiers most commonly completed surveys in auditoriums, gym bleachers, movie houses, or at their work stations. Those surveyed during overseas missions filled them out wherever they could: in tents set up for dining facilities, while sitting on their cot, in makeshift offices, on the top of vehicles, or sometimes just sitting on the ground. In all cases the respondents were guaranteed anonymity, and they placed their individual surveys in an open suitcase with other surveys (which was especially important when groups were small).
Soldiers were encouraged to write their own responses if they did not find their opinion represented among the choices, or if they wanted to expand on or introduce an important topic. Many soldiers wrote extensive comments, providing qualitative material that could be tied to demographic data and attitudes on other topics.
This article focuses on the wave of questionnaires that asked about the women's movement, exclusion of women from combat, and the status of women in the military. This wave includes responses from 980 women. Statistical analyses of the questionnaire responses often revealed differences by rank, race, and military occupational specialty (MOS). Where significant variation appeared by these variables, I report them along with my qualitative data.
I employed a combination of nonrandom sampling techniques for both the questionnaires and interviews because of the ethnographic emphasis of my study and the impracticality of random sampling in the field or on military posts. Quota sampling was used to approximate the rank, racial, and occupational composition of the Army as a whole. Because of my focus on gender, I oversampled women; at the time of the study women made up only about 12 percent of the Army population but accounted for about 40 percent of my sample. Through purposive sampling, I sought experts such as commanding generals, equal opportunity officers, personnel staff members, chaplains, military intelligence officers, and psychologists. The respondents also included veterans of operations in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Macedonia, Haiti, and numerous other small-scale peacekeeping missions, as well as Kurdish relief in Iraq and Hurricane Andrew relief in Florida.
After each wave of data collection, I evaluated the questionnaires, edited them for clarity, and lengthened them with additional questions suggested by the soldiers. One of the benefits of the multimethod, multiwave approach was that the interviews shaped revision of the questionnaire, and the written comments on the questionnaires added to the interview schedule.
Individualist Feminism and Military Women
Feminists who have written or spoken publicly on women and military service generally fall into two distinct camps. This difference developed from two separate strands of feminist theory. These strands have been discussed in feminist literature under various labels: relational versus individualist feminism, cultural versus liberal feminism, or difference versus sameness feminism. Feminists located in the first tradition generally adopt a pacifist view and express dismay at women's interest in joining the armed forces.(2) The second tradition, however, has produced a group of feminists who use rights-based arguments to push for the greater inclusion of military women. It is this branch of feminism that this paper will consider, because activists in this tradition claim to represent the interests of military women in their very public activities as lobbyists, spokespeople, and publishing scholars. Ironically, the policy preferences they advocate do not reflect the position of most of the Army women in my survey.
This article does not claim to discuss all feminist perspectives on the issue of women and combat roles - just the arguments put forth by feminists who have been active in debates over military women's roles or who have written books accessible to the population under consideration. This group is the only feminist group who claims to know and represent the interests of military women, and these feminists' contentions are the ones that reach military personnel and policymakers. This paper analyzes Army women's reactions to these public arguments to bring policies for women in line with those for men.(3)
The strand of feminist thinking that is demonstrated these activists, identified by Karen Offen as individualist feminism, reflects the liberal foundations of American political thought and American feminism:
[It] privileges the individual, virtually without reference to the community or group. Physiological differences and hence sociopolitical differences are muted, and equality of individuals and their claim to certain "rights" or entitlements, based on an eighteenth-century model devised for male heads of households (not single men), is uncompromisingly asserted. Within individualist feminism, womanly qualities or attributes are necessarily downplayed. (1990, 18)
From this framework, individualist feminists argue for the fullest possible inclusion of women in the military, including eligibility for the draft and assignment to the combat arms (Devilbiss 1985, 1990; …