I’ve done dozens of interviews since Undaunted launched in early February and am occasionally asked: Why in the world would a woman want to go into combat?
The question always surprises me since the answer seems obvious, but perhaps that’s because I’ve been around military people all my life. The military is a traditional place. Throw into the mix nonconventional women and things get interesting. These women believe they can fight, lead and defend, despite conventional wisdom.
I answer the question by pointing out women serve for the same reasons as men, which ranges from patriotic duty, family tradition, money for college, or simply because it’s a steady paycheck in a poor economy.
The performance of this generation of servicewomen is not only revolutionizing the military, but as evidenced by my talk radio discussions, is testing social views of traditional gender roles and norms.
It helps to keep society’s broader context in mind. A century and a half ago married women couldn’t own property in America. They achieved the right to vote only 93 years ago. The first female didn’t become CEO of a Fortune 500 company until 1972, and two years before that women finally obtained the right to have credit cards in their own name.
Meanwhile, in the military, women couldn’t exceed 2 percent of the armed forces and couldn’t be promoted beyond the ranks of lieutenant colonel or commander until Congress changed the law in 1967.
By 1973 the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law that denied servicewomen’s dependents (her children and spouse) basic benefits such as housing and medical care—all the things authorized to military men’s families. And by 1975 pregnant women were no longer kicked out of the service.
We’ve come a long way as a military and a society.
Yet, being asked on live radio why any woman would want to join the combat arms branches is a reminder that societal gender norms aren’t always in line with official policy changes.
It’s not unusual for the pushback to come from other women. Since the book came out, one of the main subjects in Undaunted, Major Candice O’Brien, has been accused by some for putting her career before her family.
A few days ago while visiting Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I met a female officer who shared a similar story. A neighbor felt it was her business to tell the major: “You’re failing your kids.”
How did she respond?
With more tact than I could have mustered. She told the woman she saw herself as a role model for her children, a person they could look up to and admire, knowing that they, too, through hard work, could aspire to achieve and be whatever they set their minds to accomplish.
Such scrutiny is a reminder of just how courageous these women have to be off the battlefield.
The challenges, choices, and successes encountered by women throughout their military careers, from issues of discrimination to juggling family and a job, have far-reaching implications for all women in contemporary American society. Women in the military are on the cutting edge of gender debates. Their struggles and triumphs and the price they pay may point the way to the future.