where life's not empty, it's restless.

Women Warriors

DSC00853I claim I want to better understand war. But my gut reaction to the news about women being allowed to serve in combat positions? Queasy. As if what the headlines are shouting is: “Hooray! Women will now be allowed to do the most dangerous, spiritually challenging, morally ambiguous dirty work on the planet!”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins set me straight, reminding me that “They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.”

Collins goes on to recall the words of retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who once told her: “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.”

The logic is clear: if we invest our nation’s security in professional warriors and if we believe women deserve equal access to all career paths, then women who make the personally huge commitment to serve in the United Sates Armed Forces must not be barred, on the basis of gender, from combat roles.

So why my retrograde queasiness? Because, like any pacifist, I find it so difficult to turn my thoughts to combat at all, no matter what the context. But—as I learned from Karl Marlantes’ book, What it is Like to Go to War (see last week’s post)—I know turning our backs on war is not the answer. Especially the wars we support with our tax dollars.

It has been 40 years this month since we ended the draft. It has also been 40 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe versus Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Though Roe v Wade was rightly hailed as a victory for women’s rights, the court’s decision had the unintended consequence of pumping up the volume on both sides of the larger movement for equality to such a level that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment quickly spiraled from assumed to doomed.

The language was so simple—“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”—many of us were stunned when it failed. How could our fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands—let alone other women—oppose something so basic? And yet, as Gail Collins reminds us, it was the very idea of women in combat that ultimately killed the ERA. Perhaps for a nation still recoiling from the Viet Nam War, still without any bedrock confidence that the draft would not be reinstated the very next time Congress had a good excuse, the thought of sending sons and daughters to war was just too much, illogical though that may seem to us now.

Forty years is a long time. Our hearts and minds have changed. On Inauguration Day, we heard President Obama invoke not only rights for women and minorities but also, for the first time in an inaugural address, gay rights. As he poetically put it, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Obama went on to say that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” And now wives, mothers and daughters who want to earn their living on the battlefield can officially do so–not just unofficially, as so many already have. Which could mean, ten years from now, we’ll have more women generals and admirals. We don’t know yet how this might change military culture (especially regarding epidemic sexual assault) or the way we fight wars. But we can hope it will.

This Thursday, January 31, 2013, I’ll be reading as part of the Writers in The Schools writer reading at Richard Hugo House. 7:30 to 9pm. The bar will be open and admission is free!

 Also: I have guest posts up on two sites I love,  A Geography of Reading and Earthy Sophisticate.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


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3 thoughts on “Women Warriors

  1. I have such conflicting feelings about this when I hear of and meet families where both Mom and Dad are deployed to a war zone and the children are left with grandparents at as young as 2 months old. Then I do wonder, again, at the wisdom of military policies. Is it equal rights vs healthy children and families? As the daughter of a Cold War warrior who was gone all the time, I don’t like the choice. As a pacificst, I’d say we need to get a real handle on what we need all these warriors for before we insist that a woman has to give up her children in order to serve. No, it is not sexist to affirm that young children need their mom’s. It’s biological. And, why, since WWII, has it been that no two sons of the same family can be put at risk by deploying them to the same arena, and it is not so for husband and wife with children at home. The military is still too patriarchal for me to have any comfort level here. And our country still too emmeshed in the military-industrial complex and the “glories of war” to understand the real ramifications of all of this. I cringe at the thought of an 18-year-old young man having to kill someone, but a young woman? It all breaks my heart. My nephew was in Faluja and he is now and forever a basket case. This debate is over all the wrong things, regardless of the obvious need for every country to hold up a military presence. “Swords to ploughshares.” (Oh, this is such a long discussion.)

  2. Natasha on said:

    I too am queasy. It’s a primal response. For so long women have been the spoils of war. The victor gets the cattle, horses, and dare I say it, the women. And so I feel a little at ease bc on some level.

    But, this is a choice, not a requirement and so if women choose to serve in combat, then they should have the right. But I shed two years, one of progress and one of sorrow.

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