Pull-Ups: One Feminist’s Take on the Controversy

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.


The Way of an Unlikely Feminist

January 19, 2014 by So to Speak · 8 Comments
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Uncategorized, Women's Health 

At the age of forty-five, my devotedly Catholic maternal grandmother gave birth to her thirteenth and final child, a girl. Less than a year later, after being obliged to marry my father because it was deemed the “right thing to do,” my seventeen-year-old mother gave birth to me, the first female grandchild. She returned to high school in the fall as a senior, but did not graduate with her class.

Four years later found me and my mom, divorcée and recent convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in northern Utah—two thousand miles away from the small Pennsylvanian town of my birth, away from the gossip and the stares, both pitying and disapproving. A young returned LDS missionary caught Mom’s eye not long after our arrival, and three months later he became my step-dad.

At this time, members of the LDS church, which has a long and storied tradition of being led exclusively by old white men, accounted for almost four-fifths of the state population. Saying there is a church on every corner falls well below hyperbole—I’m sure they outnumber Starbucks locations in Washington.

With a background such as this, I have no business being a feminist. I didn’t even hear the word until I started college.

I remember sitting in Young Women’s (once you turn twelve, the church separates boys and girls into their own Sunday school classes) as a teen, listening to the teacher tell us that to enter the highest level of heaven—the Celestial kingdom—we needed to marry (preferably a returned missionary) and raise a family. I looked around at the other girls, smiling beatifically and nodding in unison, clutching their monographed Book of Mormon tote bags, and thought, What if I want something different? Having witnessed during visits the cyclonic chaos of my grandma’s modest brick house, its wooden floors pounded into submission by so many pairs of feet; heard repeatedly about all of the missed opportunities (e.g., a college education) and struggle endured by my mom because of early pregnancy and custody battles; and missed out on much of my own childhood taking care of three younger half-siblings, finding a husband and having children wasn’t exactly on my list of priorities.

Instead, after turning eighteen, I got the hell out of dodge and reversed the two-thousand mile trip to attend Penn State. I discarded organized religion like an ugly sweater bequeathed by a well-meaning relative that had never fit well to begin with. I drank tea and coffee and alcohol. I smoked sour apple-flavored hookah. I wore shirts that showed my shoulders and my cleavage. I had sex, way more than once. It was scary and exhilarating and nerve-wracking and mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly glorious. Above all, it was my choice.

I signed up for the Introduction to Women’s Studies course because I’d heard it was a tough class, headed by a formidable female professor, and I craved the challenge. Jackie, feisty and flaxen-haired, opened my mind and poured in the finely distilled words of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Chopin, Audre Lorde, among countless others, and they swished and swirled in the depths of my consciousness, forever shifting the way I perceived and interacted with the world. I graduated college a year early with a minor in the subject.

More than exposing me to new and diverse female voices and perspectives, my Women’s Studies courses provided a lexicon for naming those phenomena on the periphery of my growing awareness and a framework through which to analyze and dissect their causes and effects, not only in my personal experience, but also in society at large. Patriarchy and objectification and oppression and double jeopardy and gender roles and marginalization became conversational focal points and were suddenly everywhere I looked, although they had always been there. Watch any beer commercial, and you’ll see what I mean.

Unfortunately, immersing myself in the world of feminist literature and discourse did not save me from falling victim to dysfunctional and emotionally abusive relationships in my early twenties, willfully trading my innate ethos for validation of my worth in even its smallest measurement. Creating boundaries in my relationships, romantic or otherwise, and expressing my truth could not be intellectualized and parceled in a pretty theory—they required action, a birthing into being, and continuous effort and practice.

I’m twenty-seven now. With no husband, no mortgage, and only two canine children, my life looks very different from my familial female role models’ lives. Based on social media and anecdotal evidence, I’m also fairly certain I’m the sole member of my high school class who isn’t married and actively procreating. I have a master’s degree. I’ve lived and traveled around the world on my own. I’ve walked across an entire country. This way of being is not better, or worse; it’s just different. And it’s mine.

It’s important to recognize, though, that my feminist ideology and freedom came with a price, paid by all the women who came before me, including my mom and grandma, who were held hostage to their respective time periods and places in society, buffeted by circumstance and cultural dogma. I realize now that the path toward feminism (which really should be termed “humanism”) involves remaining open to growth and connecting with how my decisions and actions make me feel—if they’re moving me away from, or bringing me closer to empowerment and the highest version of myself.

I’m still a big tea drinker, with the occasional cocktail or two at social gatherings. Hookah smoking now happens maybe once or twice a year. My closet has plenty of form-fitting V-necks because wearing them makes me feel confident and sensual. And casual sex partners dwindled to zero a couple years ago when I finally embraced that I’m just not a casual person, and I enjoy the act most when there are real feelings involved.

Someday, I might get married. I might get pregnant. I might get a cute little house with wooden floors that I’ll decorate with vintage book covers and treasured quotes and quirky items I’ve collected while traveling. Or I might not.

I have nothing to prove.


Kecianne Shick is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Writing program. An independent writer, editor, and budding adventurer, she currently works at City Weekly Newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her website,  www.pickingthefig.com, is a growing compendium of travel stories, philosophical ponderings, and advice for taking action in one’s life.



What? You Birth at Home AND You’re a Feminist?

I was pregnant three weeks after I was married. It was unexpected, delaying my undergraduate graduation for longer than I care to admit and derailing my plans for graduate school until a later season in my life. I was just getting comfortable in my feminist skin, full of enthusiasm for equality and full agency for women in our society.

I still remember the day I called to let my internist know I was pregnant. I was coldly informed by the office staff that the internist would not need to see me again until after I had delivered the baby and had an internal medicine issue; they suggested that I call an obstetrician’s office. Just like that, I was severed from the only healthcare provider I had seen since moving to Virginia to attend college. Instinctively, intuitively, instead of calling an obstetrician, I asked a fellow student, who was expecting her third child, if she had ever heard of midwives in the area. It turned out that she delivered her children at home and could recommend her midwife.

Finding a midwife, in my mind, was an expression of my feminism. I felt fully empowered to birth on my own terms, with a caregiver who treated me like a friend—a neighbor, a sister—rather than a number shuffled from specialty office to specialty office in a cold and impartial way. It was a step that began, perhaps unconsciously, with my earlier reading of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.  The way in which Naylor’s colorful character embodied feminine wisdom had not left my mind more than eight months after finishing the novel. In addition, just the year before, my aunt, a labor and delivery nurse, chose to deliver at home unassisted. The newly blossomed feminist in me was drawn to these strong women who were questioning the politics of birth and bucking against a patriarchal model of care. They both exemplified full agency in their womanhood.

Years later, when pregnant with my fourth daughter, I traveled to Richmond to lobby for the legalization of home birth midwives in Virginia. In my mind, it was a clear matter of Choice. Women deserved to make their own choices about where and with whom to birth. It seemed a logical feminist issue, but when I approached female Democratic General Assembly members, who typically supported pro-choice measures, I was shocked at their unwillingness to see home birth as anything but a throwback to the dark ages. Instead, I humbly found myself working with politicians on the other side of the aisle—often white-haired conservative men—and linking arms with religiously conservative women. It was a stark lesson in gender politics and the ways in which women can unite whether they identify with feminism or not.

Later I would write a paper that a professor nominated to a national communication organization for an award. It was a project that involved feminist narrative research and women’s stories about birth, in particular birth with a midwife. The professor was an academic feminist legend, a nationally known scholar who had devoted her career to feminist communication; she was shocked when the award committee didn’t take my project seriously. I was not. When researching, I have found very few scholarly books or papers on choice in childbirth. Most of feminism rests on issues around choice in pregnancy and sexual orientation and inequalities in pay and violence against women, still extremely important issues. But, what about the eighty-five million women who give birth in America? Isn’t full agency in childbirth an important issue to embrace in feminism?

Today maternal mortality is on the rise and our minority sisters are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth—no matter economic status or education level. There is feminist work to be done around childbirth. I’ve had the fortune to work, as a grassroots organizer, with women who are bringing awareness to the inequalities in childbirth, and the importance of a woman’s full agency in the birth experience. Women like Jennie Joseph, Ina May Gaskin, Juliana Fehr, and many nonprofit organizations like the International Cesarean Awareness Network, Every Mother Counts, Childbirth Connections, Midwives for Haiti, and the White Ribbon Alliance. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to come together over this issue—whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight—women advocating for better birth options is an issue that embodies what feminism is all about.

Would you like to contribute a birth story? We’d love to hear about your experiences in childbirth, in particular whether or not you experienced full agency throughout your maternity care.

+Sheryl Rivett

Friday, April 12th Will Read For Women Donation Drive

Tonight, at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan (2427 18th Street NW Washington D.C.),we will host our second annual Will Read For Women Donation Drive to benefit the Bethany House women’s shelter of Northern Virginia.

Starting at 8:00 PM guests are asked to bring  toiletry items and other pantry necessities as “price of admission.” Suggested items include: Baby wipes, Adult wipes, Lotion, Shampoo, Conditioner, Combs, Bleach, Dish detergents, Dishwasher detergents, Razors, Tweezers, Lip balm/Lip gloss, Vaseline, Brushes, Toothpaste,   Toothbrushes, Mouthwash, Bath soaps, Laundry detergents, Toilet paper, Paper towels, Napkins, Diapers (size 3-6), Pull-ups (size 2T-5T).

Our performers for the evening will include Kim Roberts, Kyle Dargan, Nicole Idar, Jill Leininger, and Mel Nichols.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

“Women Are Just More Emotional”

April 3, 2013 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sarah M, Women's Health 

“Hey, the 1950s called, they want their stereotype back,” I said during a somewhat intense debate last night. I was asking a new friend, let’s call him Adam, what he thought of Garance Franke-Ruta’s recent article in The Atlantic called “Why Isn’t Better Education Giving Women More Power?

If I’m being honest, I probably already knew his response; I just really wanted it to be different, because… I like him. The article is basically about how even though women are generally more successful in school, the same behaviors and tools that helped them to succeed in the academic arena, don’t necessarily translate into the workforce. The article gives statistics on the disparity between genders and points out that studies show women in the workplace are criticized more, make less money, and are generally judged more negatively. But, the most important piece of this essay, and the part that I am most interested in, deals with the root of the problem: “The university system aside, I suspect there is another, deeply ingrained set of behaviors that also undermine women: the habits they pick up—or don’t pick up—in the dating world. Men learn early that to woo women, they must risk rejection and be persistent. Straight women, for their part, learn from their earliest years that they must wait to be courted. The professional world does not reward the second approach. No one is going to ask someone out professionally if she just makes herself attractive enough. I suspect this is why people who put together discussion panels and solicit op‑eds always tell me the same thing: it’s harder to get women to say yes than men. Well, duh. To be female in our culture is to be trained from puberty in the art of rebuffing—rebuffing gazes, comments, touches, propositions, and proposals.”

Bingo. This makes total sense to me. I am a woman. I have all too well mastered the art of rebuffing. It’s March: Women’s History Month. There are signs in stores that are supposed to be “celebrating” women. They read: 60% of our employees are women! But, it’s a party trick. “Hey, look over here!” Because when you look at upper management, it’s only 4% female. Now, Adam’s initial response to this article was to also look at the numbers. He’s very logical. He’s very smart. I like him. He would like to see the holistic ratio of employees in business. He’s had a 50/50 ratio of male to female bosses. Then, he gives me a word problem: If there are 100 employees in the office and 10 are women, and there are 10 spots to move up from that 100, then 1/9 women should be promoted and 9/90 men should be, too. His point being that no one thinks about the actual numbers, they only look straight to the top and see that there are 9 male bosses and 1 female boss. I acknowledge that he is speaking from a place of privilege, and in my mind, this isn’t the problem either. The problem is much deeper; it’s much bigger. The problem is that there are only 10 women who are employees going after that promotion in the first place. The problem is that we (women) have been taught all of our lives to accept our position, to be submissive, and to self-objectify. These behaviors and states of being are so deeply ingrained that sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m participating in this dynamic. From a very early age, we lose belief in our own political and social efficacy. We learn to see ourselves and value ourselves how the media and the collective consciousness see us.

BUT… still, the real problem is even more insidious and subtly woven into our social makeup. The REAL problem is that we still exist in a time and place that perpetuates an accepted culture of violence against women. At some point in our debate, Adam says that men and women ARE different, right? He brings up the obvious difference: our physical traits. This is the in. Yes, I think, herein lies the issue at the core of our patriarchal power dynamic. Our physical traits have been held against us and kept us repressed since the beginning of time. This is usually where I lose my male readers. They hear sexual assault/domestic violence and distance themselves, because they would never do that, so this part doesn’t apply to them. This is where we’re all wrong. Let me give you a scenario that most of the women in my life can relate to:
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