Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Allan Carlson, a historian associated with the Family Research Council, a conservative group based in Washington, recently told The Associated Press that having mothers on or near the front lines "violates the most basic human instincts."

And Phyllis Schlafly, head of her own think tank, the Eagle Forum in Washington, D.C., brandished her pen once again upon the death of Lori Piestewa and the wounding of Shoshana Johnson–both of whom had or have children and were in the 507th Maintenance company that was ambushed by Iraqi soldiers during the most recent war–mean that "the men in our government and in the U.S. military lack the courage to stand up to feminists and repudiate their assault on family and motherhood."

Aimed at curbing women with children from entering the military, such rhetoric probably won’t have much effect; especially after the way in which women served with distinction in the Iraq war. The increase of women in the military is not, as some conservatives argue, a feminist plot. It is, in fact, a result of a society’s prevailing economic and social conditions. In other words, conservative calls for curbs on "military moms" are unlikely to succeed; but for sheer demographic, not political reasons.

Women Now 15 Percent of Military

Women are making inroads into the nation’s armed services at a very fast rate. When the door was opened to a sexually integrated military in the mid-1970s, large numbers of women streamed through. Today, about 210,000 women serve, making up 15 percent of a force of 1.4 million: 14 percent of the U.S. Army; 17 percent of the Air Force; 5 percent of the Marine Corps; and 13 percent of the Navy. Men and women serve together on Navy ships such as the Eisenhower, and in 1999, in military action over Iraq, a female pilot fired a missile in combat for the first time. In the recent Iraq war, one female pilot skillfully took evasive action and successfully piloted her crippled plane back to base.

Even before the war, women were moving into combat-related activities, as combat engineers, military police officers, tactical intelligence agents, members of maintenance crews. If research into the matter is any guide, this trend will continue despite conservative opposition.

Military sociologist Mady Segal of the Center for Research on Military Organizations studied women’s roles in the military internationally in 1995. She concluded that two major factors influence the degree to which women serve in the military. They are the intensity of the threat a nation experiences and the ideas that societies hold about gender.

According to Segal’s findings, such service is likely to increase under these conditions:

High threat: When a nation believes its very existence is threatened, many women get involved in military operations, including combat. (In the Eritrean civil war for example, women composed some 35 percent of combatants, according to some accounts.)

Low threat, but amid cultural values that support gender equality: Examples here include Canada and Sweden, which allow women to volunteer for combat jobs. The egalitarian social norms override the drive to protect women.

Participation decreases, however, in the following situation:

Medium threat, combined with a good chance that battles will be fought on a nation’s own soil: Here, the threat is not high enough to override tradition concerns for women’s safety. The possibility that women might die on a nation’s own soil seems to add to traditional protective instincts.

Segal finds that certain social and cultural and demographic factors contribute to female participation. These include low gender segregation in the civilian population, later age of first marriage, fewer children, laws against gender discrimination and movement away from traditional family forms; all of these are present in today’s U.S. society.

The United States is moving into this category. So, despite the Schlaflys, our cultural values tend to supporting women in the military now.

The nature of military missions also affects women’s participation, which appears to be highest when military operations are engaged in peacekeeping relations, disaster relief or operations that resemble domestic police functions, such as quelling riots, preventing looting and interdicting illegal drugs. Military aviation is the area that will open up fastest to women, says Segal. Fighter pilot positions are open to women in Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Technology Propels Women into Military

Technological change is another force propelling women’s entry into the military. War is no longer a contest of brute strength in which burly men heave at each other with poleaxes. As Segal notes, "the substitution of brainpower for brawn" makes it more possible for women to be combatants. Computer technology, the miniaturization of weapons and the development of air power are part of that movement. Also, military jobs have become much more specialized, requiring higher levels of technical skills than in the past.

In fact, the services can’t find enough men to fill many such jobs as maintaining air craft, clearing minefields, analyzing battle and intelligence data and operating complex technological equipment on aircraft carriers–in the volunteer forces.

Some argue that having mixed sex units in combat areas would destroy "unit cohesion." The idea here is that women would disrupt the "buddy" sense that develops among fighting men. But both in actual combat settings and in training exercises, reports The Washington Monthly, gender did not prove to be a critical factor in such cohesion. The important factors were the unit leader’s command experience and the length of time the troops had spent together.

As for the violation of "basic human instinct" that Carlson of the Family Research Council mentions, that may have vanished with the modern era. The old taboo against women in combat probably had little to do with size and strength. Some women have always been taller and stronger than some men.

Based on what I’ve learned from extensive reading of anthropologic literature on this subject, it’s more likely that males were simply more expendable than females, in a survival sense. One man could produce enough sperm to repopulate a decimated tribe, so the loss of even a substantial number of males was not critical. But if the women died, the tribe was doomed. A small, fragile species like Homo sapiens needed women to be as fertile as possible and thus protected from battle.

This scenario has reversed. Humans today produce too many children, not too few, and modern medicine guarantees that, at least in the developed world, most children who are born will survive. Society can easily spare women for combat these days.

Historically, lack of control over conception limited women’s ability to serve. Reliable contraception has changed that picture. Some female Navy officers, for example, plan their pregnancies during shore leave, so as not to interfere with time on shipboard. In the Gulf War, women performed well. Despite worries to the contrary, the overall inability of women to serve because of pregnancy-related issues was low–3 percent–and well under the services’ level of safety. In fact, the Gulf War gave the cause of women in combat arms a major boost.

In her reports, Mady Segal found that women’s successful performance led directly to the repeal of the 1948 law prohibiting women in combat aircraft and contributed to the opening of naval combat ships. The performance of women in the Iraq war should only further the advancement of women in all areas of the armed services.

Segal notes that women’s military roles are socially constructed. "Public policy, norms and women’s behaviors are shaped, at least in part, by public discourse." And, in any event, when the society has a very pressing need for soldiers, women will be recruited. And while some worry about single mothers in combat, the even greater worry may be for military single fathers, who are far more numerous. As of September, reports The Associated Press, there were about 24,000 single mothers on active duty and 65,000 single fathers.

Unless social and demographic trends suddenly take a sharp U turn, women will continue to increase their presence in the Armed Forces, including taking on more combat functions. But in the near future, we won’t see largely female combat units. A recent study by the Rand Corporation, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., and three other U.S. cities, finds that while 75 percent of military women support the opening of combat roles to women, only about 15 percent see themselves as taking those positions.

The excellent performance of women in the Iraq war will be a force for opening doors. Several women became national heroes for their performance, including Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson, who performed bravely despite their wounds.

In an era when women serve as police officers, FBI agents, firefighters, and members of construction crews, and when they are playing professional contact sports such as basketball and hockey, it’s not a surprise that women are moving up the ladder in the armed services. They will continue to do so.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.