Military conference offers a woman’s perspective
By Petula Dvorak,
Okay, men, I double dog dare y’all to do it here.
Come to this military conference, look into the eyes of the commander of a naval warship or the strike officer who was in charge of deploying Tomahawk cruise missile tests or the major christened “The Angel of Death” by an Afghan general, and tell these women that you want to decide their reproductive future.
Go ahead, Rush, and see if you have the nerve to call any of these women in uniform sluts for using contraceptives to plan their families around deployments.
I dare you.
This was my first thought when I walked into a Maryland ballroom Monday filled with about 1,700 U.S. servicewomen from all five branches of the military. Hundreds of uniforms, stars, bars and medals, including at least a dozen kind-of-billowy maternity uniforms, and about 1,700 ramrod straight backs.
The Sea Service Leadership Association said this is the largest gathering of military women ever. It offers an opportunity for those in uniform to speak not only about being service members but also about being women.
“Usually, we find ourselves in the minority,” said Navy Cmdr. Nicole L. Maver-Shue, who is president of the association that put on the conference.
For retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the military’s most decorated women, that sea of uniformed females was an amazing sight. It was a bit different when she was one woman with 3,300 men in Guam or one of the only women in her military unit in Saigon in the 1960s.
She looked at one of the few men in the ballroom and said she felt like saying to him: “Do you feel like you’re a minority? Because that’s how it felt in every meeting I went to.”
The association gave Vaught a lifetime achievement award. And because it was women awarding a woman, the presenter said, the general was presented with a jeweled brooch “rather than just a pyramid for her desk.”
Vaught, an American pioneer for women in the military, is a living example of how far women in the military have come. The women applauding her were pilots, warship commanders, rear admirals and platoon leaders.
No men should be lecturing these women about any aspect of their reproductive lives, Vaught said.
“As I watch this whole thing, the talk about sex — contraception and abortion and all these other things — I look at legislators, who are majority male,” Vaught told me. “They’re perfectly willing to vote and take away” rights that should be between women and their doctors.
Of course, military women do have one advantage over their civilian counterparts: their health insurance, Tricare, covers their contraception.
America’s active-duty military is nearly 15 percent female. And it’s the kind of place where hair is pulled back and gender is rarely discussed.
“It’s not like I actively hide it. But you just don’t put it out there, you don’t talk about female things, and you don’t want to make waves,” said Air Force Maj. Allison Black, the first female AC-130H Spectre navigator to open fire in combat. She became known as The Angel of Death in Afghanistan.
Back home in Fairfax Station, the Angel of Death has two sons, 4 and 6, and coaches their T-ball team. She doesn’t make a big deal about juggling her parenting duties with her day job, and neither do other women in uniform.
This conference, which is in its 25th year and gets bigger each year, is the one place where they feel comfortable talking about not only their careers but also about being women and mothers.
“We’re the only military conference that has a lactation room,” Maver-Shue declared.
Outside in the hallways, I talked to women about their biggest concerns. A group of Marines was talking about the challenge women can sometimes pose to one another. “Us! We can be our own worst enemies!” one Marine said.
“We’re the few, the proud. And there’s so few of us women, we look out for ourselves but not always each other,” another said.
Over at a Coast Guard clique, the talk was of the uniforms, how the sizes that most women need are really hard to find. And how full-sleeve tattoos are okay but nail polish isn’t.
“Yes, there are big issues: sexual assault, pregnancy is a big one, work/life balance,” Maver-Shue said. “But here we get to talk about them and work to solve them from a woman’s perspective.”
There’s no name-calling, no frat-boy pranks set to raunchy music while talking about intrusive medical procedures.
It’s just women who can talk Howitzers, missile deployments, child care and nail polish without worry.
Petula Dvorak will respond to your comments about this column at noon Tuesday at washingtonpost.com/dvorak, where you can read her previous columns.