Women in Combat: The Lengths to Which They Must Go to Maintain Femininity

Lauren Ashburn on the challenges to femininity posed by the Pentagon’s decision to allow women in combat roles.

David McNew/Getty

Nine cans of hairspray. Check. Perfume, makeup, curling iron—check, check, and check.

The list of toiletries may read like a typical woman’s packing list, but it’s also what’s needed to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq if you are one of the 300,000 women who have served our country abroad. After all, a lot of Aqua Net is needed to comply with those military regs requiring long hair in a bun no higher than three inches. Seems military-issued rucksacks may start smelling more like Chanel than like dirty socks now that the Pentagon has opened up the playing field to officially allow women to fight, lifting a ban on women serving in the frontline combat and opening up more than 200,000 positions.

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the missions need the “best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.”

“We’ve been waiting for decades,” says Maj. Candice O’Brien, who is on active duty in Afghanistan, leaving at home children ages 2 and 4.

While the decision has many supporters in both political parties, some critics say it will damage the strength of the military because women are viewed as inherently weaker than men.

Immediately after the announcement, The Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson tweeted: “Feminism’s latest victory; the right to get your limbs blown off in war. Congratulations.”

I guess Carlson doesn’t get that women want to serve their country even at the risk of losing their lives. And feminism has nothing to do with it. It’s about equality.

What many civilians don’t know is that women have been serving in combat zones for 11 years as MPs, truck drivers, and medics. More than 150 women have been killed during that time, and 1,000 have been wounded—some earning Combat Action Ribbons.

For O’Brien, whose grandmother served in the Navy during World War II, she says she “had to go,” that it was her “duty.” Ironically, her grandmother begged her not to enlist, worried that O’Brien would face discrimination.

Women in the military have to fight alongside men, but they grapple with uniquely female issues—including motherhood.

One of the biggest reasons women are criticized is for the nontraditional decision they make to leave their children. Tanya Biank, the author of Army Wives and the new book Undaunted, says mothers who deploy face a double standard. “They’re asked, ‘How could you do this?’ with pity and scorn. It’s a question that is not asked of men,” Biank says.

“The military mission must come first. You can’t turn down deployment orders. You’d be court-martialed ... It doesn’t make it less painful that she had to leave her babies behind.”

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Biank, who has two children ages 6 and 16 months, grew up as a self-described Army brat. Her husband is active-duty military, and they’ve lived on bases across the country, most recently in Fort Eustis, Va. While writing Army Wives, which was optioned as a Lifetime network series and is about to enter its seventh season, she realized that the battles within the military are sometimes as fierce as those in combat zones for women who decide to enlist.

Undaunted follows the lives of four women, including O’Brien, as they navigate the male-dominated military mindset. Biank calls her subjects “trailblazers” who helped pave the way for the Pentagon’s new policy.

Her book details the considerable lengths to which women go to maintain their aura of femininity. A Marine drill instructor, Sgt. Amy Stokley, reminded her recruits to “remember who you are,” even on the day before the platoon’s final drill.

The women had ironed their cammies and made sure their hair was perfect. But something was missing. Stokley took out her perfume and sprayed each of their necks.

As Biank put it: “Beauty wasn’t bashful at Parris Island; it was bold and badass.”