by Leslie Morgan Steiner
When I was a kid growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, playing with my Barbies, we girls got asked all the time “Are you going to marry Billy or Tommy?” and “How many kids do you want to have?” Girls were expected to wear pink cotton dresses and giggle, have skinny arms and to smell nice.
I was not once asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My best friend’s mom, who worked in the White House, actually told me no woman could ever be President of the United States because all women lost their senses during “that time of the month.” There were professions I never considered: firefighter, policeman, soldier, pilot. All fascinating, worthwhile jobs I assumed I’d never get because I was a girl.
Thank god for my mom, who fortunately encouraged me to be a veterinarian, a mother, a teacher, a writer, and anything else I wanted. She – and the 1976 television appearance of Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, the first military action figure with boobs -- more than made up for everyone else’s discouraging views of what women were capable of accomplishing.
Hence my adult delight at Lizette Alvarez’ recent New York Times profile of female soldiers in Iraq, G.I. Jane Stealthily Breaks the Combat Barrier. Now I personally never wanted to be a soldier and I don’t think I would have made a good one. And military service is serious, risky business. But over the course of my career I’ve known hundreds of smart, strong women I’d eagerly follow into battle if they ever got the chance. Lizette Alvarez brought good news from the jagged fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan: this war is eradicating the American military’s long-standing, deeply held bias against women in combat.
“Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds,” a retired Army colonel who served under General Petraeus in Iraq told Alvarez. “We literally could not have fought this war without women,” reiterated the president of the Center for a New American Security, a military research institution in Washington. The integration of women has succeeded by way of an unusual loophole – like so many integration stories, success has been borne out of necessity. Women cannot currently serve with men in battle as part of combat branches, but women are desperately needed in Iraq and Afghanistan for critical jobs including bomb disposal and intelligence. So commanders have quietly “attached” female soldiers instead of the more formal, illegal “assigned” status.