What Women Are Good For

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Written by Jessica Silbey

This past semester, while teaching constitutional law, a student (also a male US Marine) asked if I would be interested in hosting a panel with some female marines (his colleagues) to discuss the combat exclusion for women. Of course, I said yes. It was a fantastic panel. Two women — very different in their experience in the military and in life — with very similar perspectives on the combat exclusion: it sucks. When faced with the “reasons” for the exclusion, the only one that rang true for these women was that the male marines would be derelict in their duty of fighting smartly and protecting wisely because they would be preoccupied with protecting the women marines. So, we summarized, women are excluded from full service to their country (what I consider a stigma symbolizing less than full citizenship) because of men’s shortcomings.

These female US marines regularly put their lives on the line and devote their professional lives to elite service in the US armed forces. They are subject to nearly the same rigorous training (and I would question the differences in their training, mostly differences in physical requirements, as differences that make distinctions where none are necessary). It is nonetheless segregated. Only the marines segregate their training by sex. Why?  Women are willing and able to serve in combat positions, but they are nonetheless excluded because of men’s failings of concentration. This is manifestly unjust.

This article in the New York Times brought it home to me. How are women being strategically used in the marine units? To infiltrate and ingratiate themselves with the female women of Afghanistan. This makes a lot of sense given the culture war we are fighting (as well as a military one). But read the article closely. What are women doing? Handing out teddy bears, holding babies, giggling about “girl things.” I don’t deny that we can play up the gender divide to our own advantage and for world peace. But we must be careful how far we go to instantiate “differences” that may lead to later and entrenched injustices that keep women under men in one society after another.

My daughter was looking at a book mark with images of all the US presidents, from Washington to Obama. She remarked, “Mom, there are no women here. Isn’t that strange?” If only it were so strange, my sweet, if only it were so strange.

On the eve of abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the US Armed Services, it is also time to abolish the combat exclusion for women. That is likely another decade coming. Tell me why. Tell the women who are denied professional advancement because their jobs in the marines are not as “worthy” because they are denied full access because their male colleagues cannot handle their presence. Tell the female US marines who serve and die whether or not “in combat.”