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.
“I did everything there,” a 20 year old Specialist named Veronica Alfaro explained to the Times. “I gunned. I drove. I ran as a track commander. And underneath it all, I was a medic.”
Her status as medic allowed her to comply with Army rules – and it didn’t stop Alfaro from receiving the prestigious Bronze Star for valor when rescuing a colleague and a combat action badge for fighting insurgents as a machine gunner.
Women make up only six percent of the top military ranks, but 220,000, or 11%, of the two million Americans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have been women. In the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, only 7% were. There is obviously an enormous downside to the increase in women in uniform: 121 women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands have been wounded, and thousands more have had their families disrupted and shaken by their long absences from home. But to me, the opening of careers at all levels in the U.S. military is a welcome milestone. Equal opportunity means women have the right to enlist, succeed and advance in the military as much as in any other profession in the United States. It also means we can have our own action dolls , which being a girl, I especially appreciate.