Filed under: News, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Summer Online Issue, Uncategorized, Women's Health
As Americans we like to rage over the outrageousness of news like this summer’s case of a six-year-old in India who was raped by school staff–a security guard and a gym teacher–while on school grounds. It’s a safe kind of rage–much like pretending that longer hems and looser silhouettes protect us from sexual violence, we can huff and puff over treacherous things happening to poor, uneducated, usually dark-skinned folks in some “third” world nation unlucky in their lack of, well, America.
Yet, as a country, we’re still debating whether “no” really means “no.” Especially if the two individuals in question have a sexual history together; especially if she or he “technically” said ”yes” at some point during the act. Sadly, educated young people and university officials in campuses across the nations are apparently among the really confused still. In fact, this past May, the U.S. Dept. of Education named almost 60 schools which investigations of sex crimes had come under close scrutiny.
In California at least, the question of what consent is and isn’t could be cleared up once and for all as soon as September. The state’s senate has passed SB967 and if the governor signs off on it, college students will have to have true ”affirmative consent” before getting on with getting “some.”
“Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” — SB967
Until then, I leave you with Laura Passin’s “In Stubenville,” published in our online issue this summer. (Haven’t seen our summer issue yet? Click here. Ready to submit your own feminist poetry, prose, or visual art? Click here.)
They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead,
because someone pissed on her.
—Michael Nodianos, laughing
The boys have been boys.
They’ve gone to boy jail.
The girl, they thought as good as dead.
You can do anything to the dead:
we only remember them when they are useful.
But the dead girl was not
dead—she was a girl
instead. To be a girl at a party in Ohio
is to be as good as dead.
The boys will be boys
until they are men.
The girls will be dead.
The girls are anatomical
you dissect the body, here is where
the flesh splits clean open.
Here is where the heart used to beat.
Here are the pearls that were her eyes.
The girl was dead.
The girl was a thing
that once, if you looked at it
from just the right angle,
may have been a person. Not a
boy. The girl was slung
and carried, hands and feet,
The girl woke up naked, shoeless,
in a basement. Surrounded.
The boys were shocked: they had held her
funeral. The boys had been boys.
The girl raised herself up, Lazarus,
She told us what it is like:
It is like being a girl
where boys are boys.
It is any basement,
Filed under: Nonfiction, Politics, Uncategorized, Women's Health
by Melanie Lynn Griffin
The woman has been roughed up. There’s a bruise on her cheek, and her blouse is ripped. Her long brown hair has been hacked off with a pair of scissors, by her own hands, and several of her teeth have just been brutally yanked out by a tooth-seller. A crowd of filthy men and women taunt her, shoving her along a darkened street. Her voice breaks into a raw, bitter wail. “There was a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft and their words inviting.”
If you’ve ever seen Les Misérables, you probably recognize this gut-wrenching scene. Fantine, a factory worker who has just lost her job, has sold her hair and teeth to pay for her young daughter’s room and board.
Anne Hathaway plays the role in the latest film version of Victor Hugo’s story of love and hate in the French Revolution. She’s painfully beautiful in this scene, bruises dark on her pale skin, eyes sunken and hopeless as she’s pressured into prostitution to support her daughter.
A French army officer has just finished doing his business on top of her. She’s belting out this song, and I can hear people all around me sniffling in the dark of the movie theater:
“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living.
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Even the guy behind me with the annoying belching issue seems to be crying. He starts breathing badly, and I wonder if he’s having a heart attack or something. I’m considering turning around to ask if he’s OK, but I don’t want to embarrass him if he’s crying.
His labored breathing suddenly evens out, and I hear the sound of a zipper being closed. Apparently he successfully put himself in the French officer’s place and had his own way with Anne Hathaway in the dark.
“Why didn’t you move?” My therapist’s face had that inscrutable look she gets, and her question seemed as impenetrable as her expression.
“Move?” I echoed. “Why didn’t I move?” An irrational shame nudged a blush up my neck as I tried to remember: Did I even think of moving?
Doctor Z nodded and leaned forward in her chair, elbows perched on her knees and fingers pressed together in a teepee under her chin as if trying to keep her mouth from dropping open.
“Well, I thought about it for a minute, but — I know it sounds stupid — at first I couldn’t believe it was happening. Like, I must be wrong. Then I thought that he was obviously a mess, sick, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” I paused, and my therapist raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” I said.
“Yeah, wow,” she said.
“But I felt trapped. Moving didn’t really seem like an option.”
“Why don’t you journal about this? Writing always helps you. I’ve heard you use those words before, feeling trapped, not trusting your own experience, not being able to take care of yourself because you were worried how it might make someone else feel.”
Doctor Z pulled some papers out of her black bag, the signal that our time was up. I wrote her a check and drove home with only half my mind on the road. “Why didn’t I move?” I kept hearing the question.
Tough therapy session. Why didn’t I move away from that guy in the theater? Why did I feel so powerless? The other thing I can’t figure out is why I was afraid to tell anyone, even my friends. Like I had done something wrong, or the whole thing was so disgusting and ugly that I had to hold it in, protect the world from it. Not pollute other people’s lives with my pain. Just like when I was a kid. Don’t tell anyone what’s going on in the house; don’t tell the neighbors about Daddy passing out. Put the vodka bottles at the bottom of the trash bag. It’s all a secret I have to keep.
My mom. The queen of denial. She’s the one who taught me how to keep a secret. When she caught me on the couch with my ninth-grade boyfriend’s hand down my pants, she said, “I know I didn’t see what I just saw,” and she never said another word about it. Mom didn’t even want to tell the doctor that Daddy was an alcoholic when he was lying on life support in the hospital! As if they couldn’t tell. I broke the secrecy code and told the nurse our shameful secret. Daddy died anyway.
Now that I think of it, the voice in my head at the movie theater saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I must be wrong,” was my mom’s voice.
“Good work,” said Doctor Z, when I finished reading my journal entry. “What else?”
“Well, I guess my family was so focused on our shame and secrecy that what I needed didn’t matter much. It’s like I learned that I’m not worth taking care of — I don’t believe I have any rights. Mom never took care of her own needs either — trying not to upset my father always came first. That’s why I was more worried about how that guy might feel if I moved than I was about my own feelings.”
I picked up the cushion on the sofa and began messing with the stitching. “Have I ever told you about when I lost my virginity?” I asked, though I knew I hadn’t. It all came out in a rush. “I was sixteen and I was at a party in an upstairs room with an older guy, kind of a friend. We were messing around and he got really aggressive. I said no to him, told him to stop. I said I didn’t want to, but he went ahead and I thought, ‘Oh well.’ I wanted him to like me, and I guess I figured it wouldn’t be worth the fight. I’ve always felt ashamed of that.”
There was a silence while we sat with my shame and I continued to unravel her cushion.
“You were sixteen, Melanie. Just sixteen.”
“Yes.” More silence. I couldn’t look at her.
“You’re an adult now. You can take care of yourself. You don’t have to be a victim . . . you have choices.”
“Yes, I have choices.” I did not sound like an adult. I sounded like a little girl parroting her mother’s directions. I waited for further instruction.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” Doctor Z reminded me, as she often must.
I exhaled a laugh, set the cushion down, and looked her in the face. “Yes, I do have choices.”
I am going back to the theater tonight. It’s been nearly two months since Les Mis, and I was telling Dr. Z how mad I was at that asshole cause I felt like he had stolen my theater from me. I usually go every week, but the thought’s been making me nauseated. “I can’t imagine sitting in that seat again,” I told her.
“Well,” she said, “you could sit in a different seat.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, laughing at this obvious solution. “I have choices.”
So I’ve been planning on choosing a new seat. But that’s still making me mad. He stole my spot and I feel l like a victim. So I think I’ll march right down that aisle and sit in my regular seat, twelve rows back on the left. If somebody sits behind me, I can always move.
Melanie Lynn Griffin leads writing workshops and spiritual retreats. Her writing has appeared in Sierra magazine, AARP Bulletin,WildEarth Journal, Outside In Travel Magazine, and a 2014 anthology entitled Answers I’ll Accept. She holds a Masters in Creative Nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from National Cathedral College. A complete list of publications and her blog Writing with Spirit can be found at http://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized, Women's Health
I’d like to weigh on matters of faith and reproductive rights.
The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “contraception mandate” or to offer exemptions for religious, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby. I’m content to let the justices interpret the Constitution; however, as a progressive Christian, I’m also entitled to my interpretation of the Bible.
I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, yet my faith community puts me in regular contact with homeless people and families who live well below the poverty line. Nearly five years ago, an Afghan refugee family sought our community’s help. It was this experience that solidified my strong feelings on reproductive choice.
At the time I met her, Azin* was a 27-years-old mother of three children who had an eighth grade education. Her husband’s hourly wage barely covered the rent.
Azin wanted to attend school to learn English in order to find a better paying job to help support her family, but her youngest was an infant.
Being a small congregation, we didn’t have the means to address all of the family’s financial needs. Our outreach committee felt we could best help the family in the long term, by assisting with Azin’s education. We raised funds that were matched in part by a national religious non-profit organization. We paid tuition for ESL classes through the local community college. We covered babysitting expenses when county funds ran out.
While driving Azin to and from classes, I heard more of her story. She had married at 16 in Afghanistan, where the Taliban threatened to rape unmarried girls. After fleeing the country at 18, she and her husband lived in a refugee camp in Turkmenistan. While there, she had two children. The UN then relocated them to the United States where they had no family and didn’t know the language. After settling in the US, she made the decision not to wear the hijab in order to distance herself from the Taliban’s zealotry, a decision that inadvertently estranged her from many in the local Afghan refugee community.
Born a white woman in the United States to college-educated parents, I know that I had huge advantages over Azin. After earning a BA, I married and started working. My first employer did not cover contraception, but I had access to affordable options through the local Planned Parenthood. I left the workforce when my daughter was born and could afford to attend graduate school while staying home with her.
Azin was ten years younger than I with few material resources. I admired her tenacity and looked for ways to help. I passed down my son’s clothes as he outgrew them, so she could use them for her youngest son. I tutored her daughter in reading one summer. These acts seem small in comparison with the advantages I had by virtue of my birth and ethnicity. Every action that I took to help her humbled me; I did not deserve to have all of the privileges that I had anymore than she deserved her circumstances.
Azin appreciated every small sacrifice. And I discovered that when I had the opportunity to minister to her, I felt a sense a purpose that was far more rewarding than the everyday reality of changing dirty diapers and chauffeuring a preschooler – a reality that in and of itself was a privilege.
“Would you forgive me if I had an abortion?” she asked over the phone one afternoon, three years after I first met her. She feared she might be pregnant.
I paused, holding the phone between my shoulder and ear. I assessed the situation: having another child would stretch the family’s already meager resources and slow her already part time studies. Azin loved her children; she wanted more than anything to make their lives better. I knew how hard it was to attend classes with young children. She was working so hard in a world where the deck was stacked against her. I understood this.
Taking a deep breath, I reassured Azin that her body was her body, not mine. When we got off the phone, I went out and bought her a home pregnancy test to take until she could get an appointment to see a doctor in a low-income clinic.
She wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t have to face that decision, but it did bring to light a huge flaw in our congregation’s mission efforts. It’s nice to compartmentalize a person’s needs: food, shelter, healthcare, education; yet in the end, they are all connected. In order to get an education and find a job to help support her three children, Azin needed reproductive rights.
When I approached our pastor about the pregnancy scare, he offered to pay for condoms out of discretionary funds. I thanked him on Azin’s behalf, but silently wondered about how practical a form of contraception it was for a married couple. Eventually, I came up with a different solution: I would pay for an IUD device that would be effective for five years. I know in my heart that my pastor and outreach committee would have paid for this if I had asked; however, it was something I wanted to do – to offer Azin the same reproductive rights that I was afforded so easily.
Today, Azin is still attending ESL classes with the help of a Pell Grant. She hopes to eventually become a dental assistant. Her youngest son participates in Head Start and will begin kindergarten next fall. They have a long road ahead. Azin’s desire for an education has inspired her children to do well in school. In the coming years, I look forward to helping her prepare for job interviews and attending her children’s high school and college graduations. She is a blessing in my life.
Having Azin as a friend has solidified my views on faith and reproductive rights: access to birth control helps women shape their futures. For my Christian peers who feel that reproductive rights are contrary to what the Bible teaches, I would point to Jesus’s choice to heal the sick on the Sabbath against strict religious codes of conduct. When the Pharisees approached Jesus about stoning a woman accused of adultery, as per Jewish law, Jesus responded by saying that anyone without sin should cast the first stone. The New Testament contains many more examples of Christ ministering to people rather than upholding dogma.
Paying for Azin’s contraception was one of the most feminist and Christian acts of my adult life; and I will happily continue to support her as she exercises her reproductive rights.
*Not her given name
*opening photo by Kyle Brenner/News Tribune
Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from GMU. Her nonfiction has appeared in Front Porch, Chaffey Review, and The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. To find out more about her work, visit her website: www.wendybeselhahn.com.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Women's Health
Childbirth and Feminism aren’t words that are often paired together in the same sentence. The focus for most feminist movements is on the decision whether to have a child or not, and whether a woman has full agency in the decision when deciding not to carry a pregnancy to full-term. But what about the women who decide to have a child? Where do you find feminism active and engaged? In small feminist circles, you can find women advocating for empowering birth experiences, for doulas and birth plans and a bill of rights of sorts for laboring women. And in even smaller circles, you find women banding together to address the awful truth in this country that if you are a woman of color, simply by virtue of your ethnicity and NO other factor, you are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Why is this circle so small? Why are we not agonizing EVERY day over this very real fact that our sisters are not all treated equally? Why are we not marching in front of the ACOG offices and in front of hospitals that aid diverse populations of women in childbirth? Why are we not pissed off ENRAGED about this uncomfortable truth?
In honor of International Midwives Day, we decided to shine the light on someone who IS making this her mission in life. Jennie Joseph is a British-trained, West Indian-descent midwife who cares for women in Orlando, Florida at her birth center and who lectures widely on a focused, successful strategy for reducing disparities in childbirth outcomes.
I first met Jennie Joseph when she came to a maternal mortality summit that I and a few other women put together in Washington D.C. a few years ago. I’d heard word on the street that she was a midwife who was doing something about it. I heard her name whispered with reverence, with awe, because damn, she was taking on this often silenced and uncomfortable truth about birth in America, and she was making a difference in the lives of the women who found their way to her birth center.
Jennie speaks with a soft British accent and, surprisingly given the weighty subject matter she tackles fearlessly, a great deal of humor. She’s been known to say, “In America, they don’t expect to hear a funny little English accent coming out of someone with such dark skin.” She may be right. And it may be part of why (and I’ve seen this) she’s able to make American obstetricians sit up and take notice (a sad commentary in and of itself). The outcomes at her clinic are so phenomenal, that I’m surprised that the chiefs of obstetrics from every American hospital are not lining up on the tree-lined street in Orlando where her clinic is located. They should.
It’s hard to pin Jennie down – she’s tireless in her mission to provide good care and tireless with her lecturing on the JJ Way® at conferences across the country. But StS is thrilled to have pinned her down long enough to get her take on the important work that she does:
Sheryl: You were born and raised in England and received your nursing and midwifery training in London. Tell us about your first experiences in the United States. Did you experience culture shock? What do you remember most about those first years?
Jennie: I was very surprised when I arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, I had not done any research. I knew about Walt Disney World and I knew Orlando to be a beautiful city—I was very excited about the possibilities, for my American husband to be and I. I came to America in May of 1989 and was married in August of 1989, and settled in, except that I did not realize that I wasn’t going to get any job in any hospital as a midwife in the state of Florida. I was trained as a hospital midwife and had practiced in both hospital and homebirth settings but did not know that there was such a controversy about midwifery and the midwifery model of care in the United States.
The culture shock that I experienced was that as a Black woman of West Indian descent; I assumed that I was culturally aware and able to manage assimilation into the American experience. I knew about the differences amongst races and I knew about racism, having experienced it myself. I figured that I would be able to understand how to navigate and negotiate the American way. In my personal life I experienced a lot of culture shock and certainly in my professional life on so many levels. It was beyond explanation. I felt alienated and marginalized as a professionally trained hospital-based midwife. I felt marginalized as a midwife who believed in empowerment for women and independence. I felt marginalized in that I wasn’t a registered nurse. I was a direct-entry midwife that had hospital experience and had built a career around access and privilege in the hospital system. I was marginalized from a place of being a Black woman with an English accent.
In many ways it was extremely difficult and I know that I could not have been prepared for it ahead of time. It had to be worked through in real time. I remember feeling isolated and was depressed for a good few years. I got to the point where I hardly ever wanted to say anything because I didn’t want the reaction of shock and surprise when I started to speak. So it was very difficult. I do remember I began to explore the history of midwifery. I began to understand the cultural perspective of midwifery, particularly in relation to the grand midwives of the South and their eradication during the latter part of the 20th century.
Sheryl: What originally drew you to midwifery as a career?
Jennie: I was absolutely called to be a midwife. I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to pursue that path. I barely knew what it meant and I had no experience at that age.
I graduated from high school and was determined to go into midwifery. So much so that at my age I was told I was too young and had to wait until I was 20, but I managed to get started at 19 because I was so enthusiastic and I wouldn’t let up until I was finally admitted into a program a year earlier than I should have been.
I knew in my spirit that I was going to do this work. I have never done anything else. I’m approaching age 55 and I have been working in midwifery since I was 19.
Sheryl: When did you first become aware of disparities in care for women of color?
Jennie: I began to figure it out two years after I arrived. I was also a victim of those disparities in that within a year of arriving to the United States, the OBGYN that I worked for managed to dictate to me that because of my endometriosis—which I had suffered from for many years—the only answer for me was to have my uterus removed.
As a knowledgeable and informed patient with a background in women’s health, I was still drawn into that place where I felt unable to speak for myself and felt concerned not realizing the industry where women’s bodies have been historically taken advantage for gain and for power. I didn’t understand the racial connotation of hysterectomy in the United States.
At the age of 30, like a sheep to the slaughter I had my uterus removed and he took both my ovaries at the same time.
Sheryl: Tell us about your method of maternity care, the JJ Way®. How did it come about?
Jennie: I developed the JJ Way® model as I grew my midwifery practice from a homebirth practice into a birthing center practice. I realized that there were very few women of color coming into my homebirth practice. I felt that I could reach women of all races and socioeconomic statuses if I could open the idea of taking care of women in the prenatal period regardless of where they wanted to deliver their baby.
My experience was that the women of low income or women of color who were not educated or supported in natural birth felt more comfortable in the hospital environment. For them there was some benefit in having their babies that way. So rather than try to convince them and to cajole or try to force on them my way of thinking, I decided to open a practice where I could provide good quality midwifery care for women of all races that was holistic, patient-centered, empowered, safe, and culturally competent and yet those women that chose to have their babies in the hospital still got to deliver their babies with a physician in the hospital.
That helped me to realize that the benefit of that work was that, regardless of where they were giving birth, they were having healthy full term infants, they were empowered, actively planning their births, and breastfeeding after delivery. So I realized that was something that I could offer and I have developed it into a fully replicable model that could be used by any midwife, physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner in any clinic or birth center setting.
Sheryl: Can you share a few memorable stories about women you’ve served who have benefited from the JJ Way®?
Jennie: Over the years, I’ve seen much change in many of the women and their families. Ultimately, even though it’s intangible—it’s difficult to say if it’s because of a specific aspect of the JJ Way® or the combination of all of the points—something has shifted in the way these women are in themselves, with their baby, with their children and with their families. One woman comes to mind that came to me at 19 years old with her first baby, the father of the baby in tow. They were certainly at least acting excited about the birth and the upcoming pregnancy. They were video taping the first prenatal visit, having a good time. It all fell apart very quickly. It was not a good relationship, they broke up and she was unsupported through her remaining pregnancy and birth. She was very attached to our practice and came to literally depend on us, which is not the goal of the work, but she would call us every day very much wanting information and education—she was soaking it in. She had a very lovely and empowered birth, at term and went on to come back to support the work by volunteering. She eventually started nursing school and she’s currently a bachelor’s nurse. We know that the influence of how we supported her through her pregnancy made the difference for her to be able to empower herself and raise her child in a different way than perhaps she would have with the absence of that work.
Sheryl: What do you think modern feminists most need to know about childbirth in the United States? Internationally?
Jennie: I think all women need to know about having their power in the birth room and the importance of being prepared and educated throughout their pregnancy so that by the time they reach childbirth they know what they particularly want, what helps them feel safe, and what helps feel in charge of the experience—and it doesn’t look the same for everybody.
In the absence of that knowledge, women go into their labor and delivery experience at the whim of whoever is attending. And that is dangerous. In many cases, that can kill you. The lack of knowledge and preparation can put your life in jeopardy because you are so unaware and unable to stand for yourself.
I think that using support such as doula support, having childbirth education and lactation education, involving family and friends in your birth team, and having a very solid plan is the difference between life and death. Internationally, I think women need to understand their specific birthing practices and environments and, again, choose for themselves what they want.
Sheryl: What do feminists get wrong about birth?
Jennie: I don’t think I can address that. I don’t think anybody gets anything wrong about birth. We know what we know and we act accordingly. At this juncture, so many of us know so little that we don’t have a place to stand or any ability to make that difference for ourselves or for our sisters in birth. With that we are somewhat left helpless and at the whim of those who do have power and information.
Sheryl: Tell us about your vision for the future of maternity care.
Jennie: I believe that we can transform maternity care in the United States by changing the way we approach birth in the first place. Until we can embrace the idea that birth is not an illness but actually a transformative time in that woman and her family’s life. Until we remove the fear, because this is a fear-based industry, and provide women with the tools to navigate this fear-based industry we will not be able to see a change.
I strongly believe from the grassroots up we can influence and bring about the necessary changes to re-empower birthing women and families in America. We need education at a level that is accessible, that is warm, non-judgmental, non-punitive, and non-lecturing where women can share stories and experiences, as well as learn from an angle of understanding that is pertinent to their lives.
The educators need to change. They need to be the same women from the communities from which they hale so that there are peer level educators as well as more formally trained educators, but everyone working from the same place.
Finally, if we cannot break down the system that stands—and it would be a very difficult and arduous task—then we need to create a system outside of that for those women that are healthy, low risk and are not expecting complications in their birth. That system could be midwifery, but it could also be public health. It could be private hospital-based services, birth center-based services, or community-based services, or of course, homebirth.
I have a very broad and hopeful vision for the maternity care system in America but I believe it has to be purposeful and collegial. We have to work together to bring about a change, but before that we have to agree that there is a need for change and at this point I don’t think we have that.
Jennie Joseph was born and raised in England and received her midwifery education from Barnet School of Nursing & Midwifery in affiliation with Edgware General Hospital in London. Always a pioneer for women’s special healthcare needs, Jennie brings 26 years of combined expertise to help pregnant women achieve the birth of their dreams. Visit her on Facebook and check out her website.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
photo by Stephen Morton for The New York Times
As a feminist, I was interested in the Marine Corps’s January decision to delay the implementation of its testing standards when 55 percent of women failed to complete at least three pull-ups, a required component of the combat fitness test. This issue stirred up a lot of attention in military and feminist circles alike, as both groups wrestled–and continue to wrestle–with what it means that so many women failed in this endeavor.
The figure that is still on my mind, though, is the 45 percent of women who did accomplish the pull-up requirements. By focusing our attention on the women who failed, we have failed the women who succeeded in rising to the standard. Literally, by pulling themselves up to where they needed to be the required number of times, they thereby demonstrated their capability to serve alongside men in a war zone, where “scaling a wall, climbing up a rope, or lifting and carrying heavy munitions” are life-dependent tasks. That’s something to celebrate, but instead, the Marine Corps will deny them the chance to be considered equals to the men with whom they have in fact demonstrated physical equality.
I’m a feminist in the most basic sense: I believe in equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women alike. In short, I believe in equality for all people, period. As such, I support the presence of qualified women in the military, and I think barring women from service in combat zones is to ignore the long history of women who have always done so, with or without formal recognition of their contributions.
However, I do not support the idea that we should have women in a combat zone simply for the sake of having women in a combat zone. Just as the military screens for the strongest and most physically capable men, so also do I expect the military to screen for the strongest and most physically capable women. Actually, scratch that: What I expect is for the military to screen for the strongest and most physically capable people. Period.
The Marine Corps is in a particularly awkward position regarding the social and political push for a certain quota of women to be maintained in its ranks, because the Marine Corps is unique among military branches in its requirement that all Marines meet core infantry standards, not just those assigned to serve in the infantry. The Corps seems to hope it can achieve this socially and politically demanded quota by “equalizing physical standards to integrate women into combat jobs.”
But I worry that the quest for equality in the military is becoming more about achieving the appearance of equality, through socially and politically imposed quotas, than about upholding true equality of opportunity for everyone—male or female—to serve his or her country if he or she is qualified to do so. I think it is a mistake to hold back the women who have demonstrated their ability to meet the physical standards for serving in the Marine Corps simply because there aren’t enough of them (yet) to meet these superficial quotas.
Lowering the physical standards for women in a euphemistic effort to “equalize” the Corps’ gender distribution is no more equitable than banning women from combat zones. All infantry training programs in the military have a long history of high attrition rates; in fact, many would argue that, for the Marine Corps especially, these high attrition rates are a point of pride, a bragging right, a means of establishing the Corps’ image as physical and mental elites. They’re not known as the Few and the Proud for nothing.
Military service is not something men or women are entitled to. Even in times of conscription, physical requirements still limited eligibility to serve. For example, we did not let blind men fly airplanes in World War II, and I hope we would not have let blind women do so, either. Upper body strength is as important to infantry service as vision is to flight, and we do no one, male or female, any favors by diminishing the importance of physical standards for military service.
The issue, then, is not whether or not we have an appropriately equitable number of women serving in the military, but whether we are granting women equality in the opportunity to prove their qualifications for military service. And prove it many did. As 45 percent of recruits demonstrated in their successful execution of the combat fitness test, and as has been pointed out in reportage of this issue, it’s not impossible for women to do several pull ups.
By fixating on men and women as separate categories, we’re forgetting that first and foremost we are all people. Gender is just one of many factors that plays into an individual’s ability to serve successfully in the military. If sticking to its guns means the Marine Corps can’t attain whatever socially and politically desirable quota of women society would prefer, well, tough nuggets. As for those 45 percent of women who did achieve the physical standard, who can do three or more pull-ups, to those women I say: Ooh-rah. Get some, ladies. Get some.
Liz is fiction editor at So to Speak and a third-year fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University, where she also teaches in the English department and serves as the assistant director in the Writing Center. Liz lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland.