Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the wake of the widespread revulsion at the abuse photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq–in which female soldiers were featured so prominently–I have been struck by how little we know about the life of women in the military.

Even as barriers to women’s participation in risky assignments have fallen–and as women’s numbers in the armed forces have increased–news coverage of the military, and military women inparticular, has done very little to help us understand the breadth of their roles and their effectiveness.

If it had been an all-male team in the Abu Ghraib photos, there would be disgust, certainly, but I don’t believe it would have risen to the level of shock that it has with pictures of young women in the roles of tormenters.

As of now, it seems that nearly as many women as men will be disciplined for abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, even though women are estimated to be only 1 of 7 armed service members serving in Iraq. Along with the enlisted soldiers whose gleeful faces are now all too familiar, the career of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the suspended commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, is on the line.

Little News of Honorable Service

Military women are serving with honor and distinction everywhere, including in hellholes comparable to Abu Ghraib. But we receive little news about them.

We seem to hear most about military women when they are in some kind of quandary: rebuffing unwanted advances and accusing superiors of sexual misconduct (Navy Lieutenant Paula Coughlin with Tailhook and Army Sergeant Major Brenda Hoster), engaging in illicit sex (Air Force pilot Kelly Flinn), charging rape at the Air Force Academy and in the field in Iraq, or being torn between family and duty (numerous women profiled by the media during the first Gulf War, and to a lesser extent, this one).

This isn’t to diminish excellent journalism that documents discrimination and criminal behavior against, and harassment of, women in the military. Nor is it to say that media interest in the women at Abu Ghraib isn’t legitimate. It’s that so few other types of stories have been written or aired about women in uniform that the effect is to make their participation in military service seem, unfairly, fraught with problems. Meanwhile, the press abounds with military men confidently discussing missions and risks.

Sexual Misconduct Stories Make the News

University of Maryland journalism professor Christopher Hanson wrote his doctoral dissertation on news coverage of military women. Contrasted with articles about Coughlin, Hoster and Flinn, "success stories and trend pieces outlining gradual improvement [in opportunities for military women] simply cannot compete," he wrote.

"One such success story, Rosemary Mariner, the Navy’s first female squadron commander and a frequent spokesperson for the Navy, was mentioned in 102 news items in the Nexis archive between 1978 and 1998. Another figure deemed a pioneer by the media, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, once the highest-ranking female ever in the Army, was mentioned 158 times."

Throw in sex–unwanted or otherwise–and the number of media mentions soars. After Kennedy filed a sexual harassment complaint against a fellow general, Hanson says a leak about her action "launched her news profile into the stratosphere." In his Nexis search, Hanson found Coughlin mentioned more than 700 times, Hoster some 900 times, and Flinn nearly 3,000 times. "It’s impossible not to question whether the coverage has painted a distorted picture of women in uniform when the errant and weepy bomber pilot Kelly Flinn makes by far the biggest media splash of the decade," Hanson says.

A study conducted by television news analyst Andrew Tyndall found that half the peacetime coverage of military personnel issues during the 1990s was concerned with sexual conduct or gender relations.

Persian Gulf War reportage was noteworthy for the number of stories about mothers deploying to the Gulf region, accompanied by photos of women and children saying tearful good-byes. Tyndall said, "Combat coverage was heavily segregated: The battle front was for military men; the home front was for women."

Active-Duty Women Put in Narrow Frame

The "mommy-goes-to-war" stories aren’t as evident this time around, but the media frame of reference regarding active-duty women remains narrow. It’s extremely rare to see a military woman in any capacity, and certainly not in a senior role. Just after the start of the Iraq war, I listened to a PBS News Hour interview with two Air Force members. One was a 20-something female airman (sorry, but the Air Force has no other way to designate her rank) and a 40-something male major.

The questions asked of the major were tactical, giving him the opportunity to make authoritative responses in military lingo. Questions for the woman were designed to get at her emotions rather than her duties: Was she worried about her husband, deployed in Pakistan? Did she feel "personally betrayed" by antiwar demonstrations? She deflected such questions with responses about the mission, but the reporter gave her scant opportunity to discuss her responsibilities as a sworn service member. He had the major there for that.

The ultimate example of this pattern was the brave "rescue" of ArmyPrivate Jessica Lynch, orchestrated to hearten the American public justas it might be growing weary of the Iraq war’s toll. Initially we weretold Lynch fought like Tomb Raider wonder woman Lara Croft until hergun jammed. We now know that the seriously injured Lynch could not haveshot her way out of anything. She was first stereotyped as an actionhero and then, as a "damsel in distress."

Now we have a new image to contend with: female soldier as sadistic captor, with reporters jockeying for interviews with Pfc. Lynndie England and Spec. Sabrina Harman, who shocked so many with their obvious role reversal of women enjoying the sexual discomfiture, and helplessness, of men.

Once again, sexuality and gender are central to prime-time, above-the-fold news coverage of women in the military, continuing a focus on scandal that crowds out our appreciation of the contributions of uniformed women.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She has also co-authored books on the media, including "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which last February received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association.



For more information:

Christopher Hanson,
"Women Warriors: How the Press Has Helped–and Hurt–in the Battle for Equality,"
Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2002:

Jodi Enda,
"Female Face of Abuse Provokes Shock,"
Women’s eNews, May 10, 2004:

Barbara A. Wilson,
"Military Women on Land, At Sea and In the Air"
photo essay: