Joan of Arc, a national heroine of France, is shown wearing armor. (AP)

Women in War

‘Slut, Bitch, Dyke’—Joan of Arc and the Modern Military Woman

No matter how gender-neutral the American military becomes, there are limits—self-selected and imposed—to being one of the guys.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc. On my first tour in Iraq, as a heavy-machine gunner on convoy missions, I wore Joan’s saint’s medal despite the fact that I’m not Catholic. As a combat veteran, I relate to her call to service and her embrace of the equalizing feeling of the military uniform.

Joan’s story is from a time when very few women were able to make an impact that could survive history’s fickle memory. I first encountered it as a young girl in a children’s book that stylized her life and exploits and glossed over the more gruesome parts of the story. I don’t recall this book saying much about her execution, except that it happened. Born a peasant, she bucked the system, donned armor to save her country, and paid for those choices with her life. Ask about Joan of Arc and most people think she was executed for defying the English claim to the French throne but that wasn’t why they killed her. The charge that cost her life was for wearing men’s clothing. Joan was killed for upsetting the natural law, as defined by the church’s interpretation of the Bible.

The camouflage utility uniforms are the most recognizable icons of the modern military, and for the most part are cut with men’s anatomy in mind. These work uniforms unsex women by squaring their body shapes, creating an androgynous effect that can, in the best circumstances, diminish sex-based tension and favoritism in the work environment. This unsexing can actually work to a woman’s advantage because by making her less attractive, even just slightly, she can focus on her job and mission at hand. Downplaying gender might also work to facilitate women’s entrance into combat roles by minimizing the social importance of their femininity.

I liked wearing the uniform. Not just the defeminizing of the cut, though I welcomed a theoretical leveling of the playing field, but also the simplicity of it. No matching of colors required, no thought for fashion, I only had to provide clean underwear and socks. Putting on my cammies every morning was the easiest part of my day. Maybe for Joan of Arc, too, the wear of the uniform was a release from the burden of feminine performance, one less thing to worry about that allowed her to rise as a leader on the battlefield. She swore that her wearing men’s armor was a commandment by God, but it was also convenient in an age of horse-powered transportation when the women attached to armies tended to be prostitutes.

So bring this forward 500 years: the Marines are about to conclude a test of a unisex dress blues uniform. Unlike the utility uniform used for work and on the battlefield, the current dress uniforms in use are still tailored to emphasize gender differences. The new dress blues being tested would use the male cut of the jacket and the male version of the white dress cap for both sexes during the parade season at Marine Corps Headquarters. In making a single style dress uniform mandatory, the Marine Corps would recognize a single, all-inclusive historical identity: the warrior, no gender specification required.

Even if we perform as well as the men we are still relegated to the female jobs.

The flipside of the uniform’s benefits is that many women service members find themselves downplaying or completely undermining their femininity in order to be respected, or even just accepted by their peers. In the Marine Corps, I was surrounded by women with distinct don’t-fuck-with-me attitudes, who volunteered to do “unfeminine” things in order to get the job done. This included adopting language and behavior considered distinctly male, taking on tougher physical tasks in unit training and operations, even ignoring (and sometimes participating in) questionable activities off-duty. But even for all the attempts by female service members to prove their mettle and be as tough as the guys, many males in the military are quick to enforce gender stereotypes and aggressively police a line in the sand to keep the sexes separate and unequal.

The most obvious example of discrimination against women in the military is the “locker room talk.” I’m not talking about cursing; sometimes a good “fuck!” is the only way to express one’s frustration. Locker room talk is the kissing and telling, the Marines coming back from liberty and describing in explicit detail their sexual exploits. Locker room talk is the physical appraisal of a new female checking into the section. Locker room talk is the assumption by male Marines that every female will turn into a “barracks rat,” or will get herself knocked up to avoid deployment. At its root, locker room talk is a way of keeping women in their place, even if they stand out in their job and perform meritoriously overseas, all it takes is one rumor for them to be separated from the men, demoted from the warrior fraternity, and reduced to a sexual object.

Servicewomen are volunteering more and more for the dangerous jobs: checkpoint security, convoy security, female engagement teams (FET). FETs are typically attached to an infantry or other combat arms unit and act as liaisons with the local female population in the areas where these units operate. FETs have been integral in the dialogue with Afghan women, ensuring that coalition troops hear the concerns and needs of the half of the population most easily overlooked in that country. Checkpoint and convoy security points in Muslim countries require women on staff in order to respect the social laws of gender interaction. It no longer needs to be argued that women are essential to the mission; just look at the way the military has expanded their role. To maintain the exclusion from combat roles creates an artificial boundary that women cannot cross. We can look like men, talk like men and act like men but even if we perform as well as the men, we’ll still be relegated to the female jobs.

After the recent order by Congress to phase in changes to policy by allowing more women into combat arms jobs, the military has recognized a need to ensure that women are physically capable of performing in such environments. Training is the key; any person, regardless of gender, is only as strong as the type and amount of training they complete. There are plenty of servicemen who fail their respective physical fitness tests because they failed to maintain or improve their personal training. The Marine Corps recognizes this potential and is phasing in a pull-ups requirement for females in place of the existing flexed-arm hang. In combination with more weight resistance and the Combat Fitness Test, women have the opportunity to prove themselves physically capable of excelling, limited only by their commitment and individual ability.

All of this, of course, does not consider the consequences of blurring or, in some instances, annihilating the feminine identity. Women desire equal opportunity and treatment in all areas of life, not just the military, but also want to keep their femininity. As it stands now though, the male interpretation of equality is based on masculine ideals of behavior, not blind standards of performance. Women constantly find themselves compromising their femininity for their career, and yet if you talk with men in the military, too many still group military women into three categories: slut, bitch, dyke.

There is the question of how much a woman gives of herself, willingly or otherwise, in order to succeed in the military, and at what cost. There is the question of how much her male counterparts will accept of this role reversal, regardless of how hard she tries. But ultimately, the question is whether or not women’s efforts at eliminating gender barriers are part of a historical moment leading to change or just another reinforcement of the division and inequality between the sexes that runs throughout history. Changes don’t happen overnight, and they certainly don’t come easy, but I’m confident that when they come it will be, in no small part, because of what women in the U.S. military have accomplished and proved was possible.

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