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Why Are Women Still Treated Like Second-Class Soldiers?

More women have fought and died in Iraq than in all the wars since World War II combined. Yet the military continues to treat them as inferior.

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Yet even though more than 2,000 women who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have been awarded Bronze Stars, several for bravery and valor in combat; more than 1,300 have earned the Combat Action Badge; and two have been awarded Silver Stars, the military's top honor for bravery in combat, the official ban continues. This makes it difficult for women to be taken seriously as soldiers or advance in their careers, let alone win respect.

The Pentagon justifies the ban by blaming civilian attitudes. American society, its policy statement says, believes that femininity is incompatible with combat, and will not tolerate the killing and mutilation of its mothers and daughters. Likewise, it argues, soldiers are more troubled by the sight of women being wounded and killed than of men, so will put themselves at extra risk trying to protect women in battle. And finally, women in combat would endanger men because of their lesser strength.

These arguments have been made for decades by conservatives too, but ironically a 2005 Gallup Poll, reported by the military itself, belies them: 72 percent of the public favored women serving anywhere in Iraq, and 44 percent (and here I quote the military's own report) "favored having women serve as the ground troops who are doing most of the fighting."

Not one of these arguments against women in combat has been borne out in Iraq. Any sign of public or media outrage over how many women soldiers are being killed and wounded in Iraq has been conspicuously absent; rather, the press has focused the bulk of its war stories on men, as if female soldiers barely exist, and the same applies to feature films and documentaries. Far from protecting women, many men are attacking them, as discussed below. Studies have long shown that some women's strength matches that of some men, and that women use ingenuity instead of strength where necessary. And there is no evidence that women soldiers add to the danger of men in any way. On the contrary, it is women who are in more danger than before, both from being in battle and from those very men who are supposed to feel so protective of them.

The fact is that military women want equality, and even though not all will choose to join a ground combat unit, just as not all men do, they want the choice to be theirs, not the government's. "War doesn't give a damn what your job is, we're getting killed anyway," said Miriam Barton, an army sergeant from Oregon who served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit. "We're getting blown up right alongside the guys. We're manning whatever weapons we can get our little hands on. We're in combat! So there's no reason to keep us segregated anymore."

The majority of military men do not look down on women as inferior soldiers or sex objects, of course, but there are still too many who do. "A lot of the men didn't want us there," Montoya said about her time in Iraq. "One guy told me the military sends women soldiers over to give the guys eye-candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don't have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead."

Some soldiers and commanders show their hostility by undermining women's authority, denying them promotions, or denigrating their work. Others show it through sexual harassment, assault, and and rape (of which there is a shockingly high rate in the military). These problems occur throughout the military, on US bases all over the world, as well as at war.

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