(WOMENSENEWS)–Women in greater numbers than ever before in American history are serving as soldiers exposed — though often not assigned — to combat or other serious dangers, such as from IEDs, improvised explosive devices.
Two years ago, nearly 209,000 women were serving on active duty in the U.S. military.
For these women, spending time at war brings special complexities and conflicts, because in war, expectations for hypermasculine behavior are more extreme than at any other time. (This is true to some extent whether the soldier is serving in a provisions unit or as a mechanic.) Indeed, the association of the military with hypermasculinity makes it harder for men as well as women to figure out what to do with their tenderness, vulnerability, moral conflicts and spirituality.
It is not possible to say whether it is harder for women to try to live up to the traditional standards of the other sex–because the expectation is that they cannot and perhaps that they should not–or for men to risk failing to meet the traditional standards for their own sex.
Although in some ways our society increasingly expands definitions of what can be considered "appropriate" behavior for men and "appropriate" behavior for women, in other ways the dichotomies have become more rigid.
What I am saying here, then, will not apply to everyone but is about the many people who remain influenced by traditional sex-role expectations. What is clear is that these expectations and assumptions create additional, somewhat similar and somewhat different problems for each.
Thus, some women in the military wonder, is it possible both to act in traditionally masculine, tough, unemotional ways in order to prove one deserves to serve in the military and also act in enough nurturing, expressive ways in order to maintain a traditionally feminine identity?
What are the consequences of trying to do both or, conversely, of trying to choose one behavioral style or the other, as a soldier and a vet?
Woman V. Soldier
For women, a typical conflict is between expectations about what a good woman feels and does and expectations about what a good (read: masculine) soldier feels and does. As a 23 -year-old woman who is an Army Specialist said, "It’s hard being a combat vet and a woman and figuring out where you fit in."
Some women struggle with trying to behave in traditionally feminine ways while having had to act (and perhaps to continue to act) in some traditionally masculine ones.
For instance, one woman was "trying to figure out how to be a wife by preparing meals doing romantic things, and basically being a woman again instead of GI Jane." None of her female friends in Iraq wore makeup and as a soldier she had been covered with dirt from "16-hour patrols and infrequent showers."
And physical injuries can make it hard to give or receive physical comfort and affection from a partner.
In her 2007 New York Times Magazine article, "The Women’s War," Sara Corbett recounts the care that some servicewomen take to avoid friendships with other women while they are deployed, out of fear of being called lesbian. She quotes Abbie Pickett, a member of the Army National Guard, saying that in the military, "you are one of three things–a bitch, a whore, or a dyke." Pickett also describes the tension she feels because of constantly being in the minority as a woman.
Mothers Face Special Problems
A whole set of problems arises for women in the military who are mothers, and this includes a huge number of women. More than 100,000 soldiers who have served in the current wars are mothers, nearly half the number of women who have been deployed. The vast majority are primary caregivers, and one-third are single mothers. Twelve percent of the women and 4 percent of the men in the regular Army are single parents.
Kirstin Holmstedt describes many problems of these mothers in her book about women in the military. Those who come home physically injured or emotionally limited (detached, overwhelmed, angry) feel guilty and ashamed of being unable to carry out ordinary motherly tasks.
A 2006 Washington Post story carried the report of the first female combat amputee who is a mother and who could not do easily some of the things expected of a mother, such as cooking and helping a child to dress. And in 2009, a mother who had no one with whom to leave her two children was recalled to active duty (but was relieved to be discharged from the Army because of that).
The sheer variety of problems that mothers in the military encounter is mind-numbing. One woman reported desperately missing her 5-month-old baby and being put on antidepressants, her motherly feelings treated as psychiatric symptoms that needed to be suppressed.
Another "thought that when she was with Iraqi children, she would be able to relate to them as she did to her own children, but that wasn’t the case. ‘I don’t look at those children and see my own at all . . . [A]ll I felt was anger and almost hatred . . . There were 12-year-old children threatening us with IEDs and RPGs.’"
In general, exposure to so much violence in the military can sap their patience, tenderness and resilience. Furthermore, for military women who had positions of power and authority when at war, to come home, where mothers’ work is unpaid, often not respected, and often invisible, can make them feel "less consequential."
And the transition times between military service and home–"where they are expected to immediately resume household responsibilities–can be excruciatingly difficult."
It is hard to imagine whether it is more disruptive to a woman and her family for her to be home for very brief periods of time in between deployments, so that not much readjustment is likely to be possible, or to be home longer periods, which might make readjustment more likely but render the next separation a more difficult rupture. This would also apply to men who take on significant household responsibilities.
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Paula J. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist, is an affiliate at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute and a fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program in Harvard’s Kennedy School of government. This excerpt is from "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans," published by MIT Press.