After decades of gradual progress, 2016 may be remembered as the year when everything changed for women in the military. Everywhere you look, women who serve are breaking new ground, overcoming gender barriers and taking on roles that are integral to our nation’s defense.
Yet a recent story from the current presidential contest serves as a reminder that not long ago, women faced opposition not just to being in combat, but to being in uniform at all.
In an op-ed written in 1999 by Mike Pence, Indiana’s current governor, and unearthed recently by BuzzFeed, the future Republican vice-presidential candidate comes down firmly against the idea of women serving in the military. Pence attacks the popular Disney movie “Mulan” because the warrior princess falls in love with her commander, concluding from that plot point that all women in the military pose a potential threat to good order and discipline. In the last line of his piece, Pence, who was then a conservative radio talk show host, wrote, “Moral of the story: women in military, bad idea.”
It is unclear how Pence’s views have changed since then, as he has not addressed the issue in any public forum since the op-ed was published.
Regardless, so much has changed since Pence wrote that piece. Since 1999, military women have been defying cultural norms and changing perceptions about their capabilities through their actions and their deeds. And they are letting their service speak for itself in even greater numbers, with more than 200,000 women serving on active duty.
Pence’s op-ed reminds us of how radical it once was to think women could fight alongside men. Indeed, in 1999, the idea that women would ever be fully capable of competing with men for ground combat jobs would have been considered nothing short of ridiculous.
Back then, it would have been unthinkable that women would be in charge of the academics and the leadership of the Army cadets at West Point. Yet in 2016, Brig. Gens. Diana Holland and Cindy Jebb assumed these very posts, proving that women have the leadership and intellectual prowess required for the most challenging positions in the military.
Two decades ago, it would also have been considered crazy to suggest a woman could ever competently serve as a combatant commander. Yet in May 2016, Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson took charge as the leader of U.S. Northern Command. Indeed, Robinson’s leadership and strategic vision will be essential to the country’s ability to defend itself against the very real threat of terrorism. According to the secretary of defense, Robinson was selected for the position because she was the most competitive for the job out of all of the general officers considered, regardless of gender.
And then there are the women graduating from training courses and schools once considered too difficult for them.
There are the three female Rangers who graduated from the toughest leadership school in the Army. Not only did the women who earned the Ranger tab fully compete with their male counterparts throughout the course, but their actions and willingness to help their male counterparts during the most physically arduous training events also earned the respect of their peers. These women are warriors in every sense of the word, and their physical and mental capabilities clearly demonstrate that military women are capable of competing with men when they are trained and challenged by good leaders with high standards and high expectations for their performance.
And don’t forget the 135 women who successfully graduated from the Marine Corps enlisted infantry training course in 2015, or Marine Corps 2nd Lts. Virginia Brodie and Katherine Boy, who recently graduated from the Basic Officer Leader Artillery Course. Both officers graduated at the top of their class of 137 students, and both cited having leaders who supported their early aspirations to become artillery officers as the key to their success.
Unfortunately, once they leave the service, many female veterans report that their service is not valued or respected by the public. If they show their identification cards or wear clothing with military logos, people assume that they are simply spouses or girlfriends of servicemen. These women are indeed wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. But they are also military leaders, warriors, academics and mentors in their own right.
As the military has evolved to develop an appreciation for the potential of women to serve in the most challenging of positions, it is also time for the American public to see these women for what they bring to the fight: brains, strength and courage. They are not victims and they are not to be sheltered from the grim realities of war because of the myth of female frailty. Their service matters.
Kate Germano is the Chief Operating Officer of the Service Women’s Action Network. She retired earlier this year as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.