Christian Feminists Weigh Pros and Cons of Women in Combat

by Melanie Springer Mock
(With responses by Kendra Weddle Irons and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Military WomanCollege loomed, and my parents were fretting over how to continue funding an education for my brother and for me. So when I saw the advertisement in the local paper, I thought our problems were solved. The Army ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) promised to pay for college, with what seemed like a minimal commitment.

I showed my parents the ad, suggesting I could join the ROTC. Judging by my parents’ reaction, I could have been admitting to membership in the Klan. “No way,” my dad, a Mennonite minister, emphatically said. “No child of mine will be joining the Army.”

Because I grew up in a pacifist family and with a peace church tradition, the ideals of nonresistance were always an integral part of my being. I learned about the importance of nonviolence almost by osmosis, and knew from a very young age that Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers.

Thus my dad’s assertion about ROTC didn’t surprise me much, nor did his insistence that I fill out conscientious objector papers while in high school, even though women were not required to register and men were no longer being drafted. Going on record as a pacifist was that important to him—and, once I understood our church’s peace testimony, to me.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ruled that women can now serve in combat roles with the United States military. I reacted to this decree with decided ambivalence, as the ruling challenges two ideologies I hold closest to my heart, along with my Christian faith. As a feminist, I long for women to be given equal opportunity as men; as a pacifist, I believe women—and men—should not make war.

When these principles seem to conflict, as they do with Panetta’s ruling, I’m at a loss about how I should feel or respond. In some ways, of course, my own ambivalence matters little, especially as I am a civilian without a clear understanding of the military; and because, in essence, women have been on our wars’ front lines for over a decade, serving as medics, supply drivers, and military police.

Still, the issue of women in combat challenges me to explore seemingly competing ideologies and decide, fundamentally, which value—women’s rights, or pacifism—deserves my advocacy.

In the days since Panetta’s decree, the assertions of many evangelicals opposing women in combat have raised my feminist hackles, perhaps because of the ways those assertions reflect underlying assumptions about gender roles. So that when Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association says things like “God did not design the female frame with the necessary strength and stamina” to serve in combat, and “Obama putting women in combat is part of an intentional plan on his part to feminize and weaken the U.S. military,” I am outraged.

Not only does Fischer enjoy using “feminize” as a pejorative (he’s done so on other occasions, too), but he makes rash judgments about women’s strength and endurance. I would love to take Fischer and his conservative pundits on in a competition of strength and stamina, by the way, but my own hubris is probably beside the point. God made many women’s bodies physically strong, capable, and in some ways more suited to the endurance needed in combat than a man’s body. (See this story on women versus men in ultra running, for example.)

In the face of Fischer’s assertions, and those of others like him, I am inclined to advocate for women, and for their physical and emotional fitness to work in challenging situations.

Or when John Piper says that promoting women in combat reflects our “cultural cowardice,” I am compelled to fight for the right of women to fight. Writing in 2007 (when the idea of women in combat was still only theoretical), Piper claimed our society’s “men have all been emasculated by the suicidal songs of egalitarian folly” because they no longer serve as protectors and leaders of women. According to Piper, having women and men shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield abrogates God’s design.

When I read these pronouncements (and Jezebel has collated a bunch of them here), I’m inclined to think same old, same old: just another issue on which white, privileged men—speaking under the guise of biblical authority—tell women what they can and cannot do. And so in the face of these assertions, too, I am inclined to champion the rights of women within the armed forces.

But then I wonder why I, as a pacifist, should be advocating for the armed forces at all. Certainly I recognize that many make a choice to join the military not only because they love their country, but because they realize military service can provide them a stable, meaningful career.

So lest I seem ungrateful about the work military folks do, let me be clear in saying I want to honor those who have committed to preserving my freedoms. Yet when was the last time the U.S. fought a war because our freedoms were threatened? And how can I continue to support, in any way, an enterprise that demands a significant portion of our country’s budget (far more than any other place in the world); that invades other countries to preserve our easy access to oil; that sees humans as “collateral damage”; that calls on its people to kill others?

I have long believed that life is best lived in paradox, that two competing ideas can live comfortably in tension with each other, and that God sometimes holds paradox close in God’s hands. But I cannot see my way clear to believing that God honors this paradox, too. God longs for justice and equity for all people, surely, but not through a system that—by its very nature of making war—is unjust. No matter how much I want to advocate for women’s rights, this is not a ruling I (nor, I would assert, any other Christian feminist) can support.

The Path toward Non-violence: Women in Combat—A Response by Kendra Weddle Irons

2I have to admit: Melanie has called me out. Sharpening our focus on the conflicting values of feminism and non-violence, she clearly and thoughtfully articulated why as I feminist I need to be against the recent ruling that lifted the ban on women serving in combat.

For days while I commuted to school, practiced yoga where my divided attention resulted in unbalanced poses and bad form, and listened to political pundits bantering back and forth about the new directive opening all avenues of the military to women, I have struggled to identify what I think. Part of what I’ve been contemplating results from my ire about those who are complaining that this decision once and for all ends any difference between women and men, resulting in massive confusion about gender roles and even cultural upheaval when men no longer will open doors for women (gasp) or (bigger gasp) will experience paralyzing confusion over who wears the pants in any given situation.

At the level of presumed gender roles, I easily applaud the decision and am thrilled to see women in the military given all of the potential that men enjoy. But, clearly, this subject requires deeper consideration to help us gain greater clarity and vision.

Although my background is starkly different from Melanie’s where the non-violence of Jesus was a prominent aspect of Christian faith, my church leaned to the right much more precipitously, hailing all things Reagan, hating all things Carter. We didn’t host gun shows, as apparently some churches are now doing judging by some of the things I see my facebook “friends” post, but we didn’t talk about Jesus calling his followers to non-violence and we didn’t see the problem of nationalism as a competing value to faithful living.

Even as I didn’t have the non-violence ethic as part of my upbringing, after years of studying and teaching the Bible, I have come to agree with Melanie and those within the peace church traditions: following Jesus means embracing a non-violent way of living. This insight has been a powerful one in my life and one I wish I had realized earlier.

At the same time, I am committed to feminism, to the idea that all people are created uniquely and wonderfully and that we are all equal— which means we must work diligently to make this conviction a reality. It is, in fact, my feminism (also stemming from my observations about the life of Jesus) that endlessly creates friction for me within most Christian communities, contradictions created by conflicting values, because, of course, as a feminist and a Christian, I have to make choices when my fundamental beliefs are not equally supported.

When I attend corporate worship experiences thoroughly immersed in blind patriarchy, I am tacitly enabling the value of Christian community to subordinate my feminist convictions. On the other hand, when I put my feminism in action, I find it too much at odds with contemporary Christianity to participate freely in corporate gatherings.

There simply seems to be no way in which I can hold feminism and Christianity in equal tension: when one wins out, the other one must give sway.

I realize, of course, I am not the only one who struggles to know how to navigate this messy business of living in two worlds. But, the irony of this situation is that we, feminist Christians, are probably to blame. In our desire to accommodate Christians who do not see the inequity of confluence between patriarchy and following the path of Jesus, we have failed to change the Church. It remains a patriarchal institution because we have valued “Christian” truth over feminism. We have too often jettisoned our feminist convictions (that probably most of us have embraced because of the radical life of Jesus) in order to remain within the fold of one or another church. Or, we have withdrawn from churches, finding community in other places— a very real need, but at the expense of changing the Church. (I am especially guilty of this and probably will continue to be, apparently not convinced by my own “preaching!”)

Similarly, the potential of transformation—in addition to other reasons of justice and fairness—convinces me to support this ruling.

Perhaps by lifting the ban on limiting how women serve will result in the military undergoing the massive change it needs. The highly masculine atmosphere and hierarchical structure surely has contributed to the appalling indictment recently handed down revealing extensive sexual misconduct. Where male power has been fostered and left to its own devices, it results in abuse and domination. Without women as equal partners in the system, the military has adeptly shown itself to be an institution mired in the abuse of women with little or no accountability.

Would our military be different if women had been equal partners all along?

In my imagination (and it may only be that), I wonder if after ten or twenty or thirty years of women serving in combat roles alongside their male partners, the military will reveal an entirely different culture? Will women who fly planes into war zones and find themselves in deadly skirmishes emerge with an alternative vision for us? Is it possible that for the U.S. to be a world leader without also being a world bully we need to have more voices of women pressing us to consider a new path?

If my perspective were reflected in our political landscape, the U.S. would not use violence as a way of negotiating a global reality. But, we are obviously not there yet. My hope is that with more women in the military, serving in all levels and in all places without gender barriers, they will change the military and subsequently they will alter the way the U.S. interacts with other nations and with other entities.

It has been over two-hundred years and our reliance as a nation on violence has only escalated. Maybe the change we need starts with more women serving in combat, learning that combat is not sustainable and is not, in the end, being the best we can be.

War, Women, and Equality: Sorting It Out—a response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

I think we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’re dealing with two different subjects here—”competing ideologies,” as Melanie expressed it and Kendra re-emphasized. On the one hand, we eschew the notion of violence and war; and, on the other hand, we believe in equal opportunities in all areas of life, without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else that has been used to either limit or lift people based entirely on their group classifications rather than on their individual abilities. The implications of these two topics are commingled in the Pentagon’s decision to open up combat to women, and that’s why we feel such ambivalence. How we bring the two topics together has a lot to do with our personal experiences.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni during World War II (around 8 years old).

Being a kid during World War II
I was six years old that Sunday when the radio news bulletins came in. The Japanese naval and air forces had attacked the United States, bombing the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and torpedoing American ships at sea.

That date, December 7, 1941, would “live in infamy,”declared President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the next day in his address before Congress. The United States was now at war.

I remember feeling frightened throughout that week at school, looking out the window, listening for the sound of planes, fearful that I would go home after my first grade classes ended and find my home destroyed and my parents dead. Though far from the battlefields, being at war changed everyday life in America. Food, fabrics, gasoline, and other things were rationed. And we had air raid practices. Even though my tiny Pennsylvania town would appear from the air as only a tiny pinprick of light in the night-blanketed valley below, we had to be ready any time the sirens blared. We’d stay inside, turn off all lights, and wait for the all-clear siren that would end the blackout.

It’s hard to describe the mood of the country as it rallied to the cause, determined to support our troops and show utmost patriotism by helping the war effort in every way possible. (Now, years later, as wars and the threat of wars seem to be with us constantly,   I find myself thinking of the title of Chris Hedges’ 2002 book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  Hedges writes about the mythology that has grown up around war, causing  nations throughout history to glorify it, all too often without fully realizing—or refusing to face— its horrors.)

But as World War II broke out, the feeling was that the only way to fight military might was through utilizing more and stronger military might—ultimately culminating in the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all its unspeakably horrible consequences and costs to human life, even though it was said to end the war.

During the four years of the war, it was in one way “upfront and personal” as I watched the young men from our area go off to fight either the Japanese in the Pacific or to fight enemies in Europe, where Hitler was rounding up Jewish people and putting them in death camps. The young men I knew who were marching off to war were young men in their late teens and early twenties who, with their girlfriends, had frequented my parents’ “mom and pop” restaurant and played the juke box and pinball machine as they talked and joked with my parents, who loved them almost as though they were their own kids. Some of these young men were drafted and others enlisted, but they regularly kept in touch with my parents through letters from wherever they were serving and talked about the time when they would be back enjoying Mom’s home cooking again. But some of them would never come home, and I remember the sadness we all felt each time we received such news. It was like losing a member of the family.

And so, we children were caught up in the spirit of those times. We memorized the songs of each branch of the armed services –”Anchors Aweigh,” “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,“ “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” (I didn’t know where Tripoli was then, but I think we all do now in view of the news in our own times!)

One of our favorite pastimes was playing army. I and my brother (two years younger than I) would dress up as soldiers, pick up our toy rifles, march off to a pretend-war, and imagine we were battling the enemy for hours and hours on end. The picture accompanying this blog post shows me dressed for one of our “military adventures” when I was about 8 years old.

In another picture in the family album, I was wearing a nurse’s outfit, standing beside my brother who was wearing a military officer’s hat and brass-buttoned dress-up uniform made for children, the trousers too long for his little legs. And although I had some idea about the bravery and wonderful work of army nurses, I think being told I could only be dressed in a nurse’s attire may have been the first time I was struck by the limits imposed on women who wanted to serve in the military in other ways.

I hated the phrase, “because you’re a girl.” But that was what I heard from my well-meaning relatives who suggested that dressing me in a nurse’s uniform would be more appropriate for posing beside my brother in his pint-sized version of a military uniform. So I was excited when in 1942 the military opened opportunities for women to put on distinctive military uniforms of their own and be able to serve as WACs (army), WAVES (navy), and SPARS (coast guard); the intention being that much of their work would be clerical and designed to free up the male members of the armed forces for other work. “Free a man to fight,” was the slogan used when the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was launched in 1943. (Even then, as now, women often ended up doing much more than fulfilling the traditional role of “helper” to men who were carrying on the “real” action.) Still, although their outstanding work as nurses, pilots, intelligence personnel, and in other capacities was considered support or auxiliary work, their dedication and service, along with that of Rosie the Riveter on the home front, helped begin changing public perceptions of women’s roles.

After the war was over, however, old ideas about a gendered division of labor reemerged.  Good jobs  were considered to belong to men as their God-given right, while a woman’s God-ordained place was in the home, paving the way for the suburban housewife ideal and the gender-role restrictions of the 1950s. That societal expectation, in turn, paved the way for recognition of the damage done to women by “the problem that has no name,” described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, which was a major catalyst for the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The lifting of the combat ban in the light of history
So I think we have to view the recent decision to lift the ban on women in combat in the context of history as it moves slowly (but hopefully) in the direction of equality and nondiscrimation for all people. There’s also the reality that women have already been in front-line combat situations in their service in Iraq and continue to be in Afghanistan— but without the credit and advancement opportunities given to men in those same situations. Combat credit is officially required before military personnel are permitted to move on to leadership positions. That’s why many women in the military who favor the end of the ban are saying, “It’s about time!”

Since the United States has an all-volunteer army, shouldn’t those who choose to be part of it be honored and treated equally —just as we would say about women who become firefighters or police officers or any other occupation that was once considered the sole province of men? Taking such a position about other women’s choices does not mean we have to like the idea of war, or ignore the dangers of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about, or mute our voices against the terrible things that go on in the name of war. But perhaps as more women assume more military leadership positions, they could have opportunities to bring about the changes Kendra has suggested, just as more women serving in Congress can work to bring about changes in attitudes, policies, goals, and the way work is done in running the country.

I strongly agree with both Kendra and Melanie in emphasizing peace and non-violence as the way of Jesus. And although growing up in World War II shaped some of my thinking about “just war” theories, and I loved playing soldier as a child, as an adult I learned to “put away childish things.” I learned to see and grieve over what war really is and what it does to people regardless of which side one is on— and to hate the very idea of war and much of the justification behind it, while at the same time realizing the tremendous complexity of such matters and the lack of easy answers.

And so I was impressed with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words in her recent farewell message to the employees of the State Department: “I hope you will redouble your efforts to do all you can to demonstrate unequivocally why diplomacy and development are right up there with defense.” May it be so.

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FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Not any woman or man can pass that test.It takes rigorous training and conditioning to accomplish it. With the dedication of the INDIVIDUAL,the can accomplish the task because every single person is different.The average woman in the U.S is 5’5, which is the same as men in India,North Korea,Malaysia,etc so people should stop thinking women are like tiny creatures.God gave a body that is strong, and that gets stronger with training just like men. Not all men passed the test,did you not see the failure rates?There is a much larger portion of men than women who tried the test (This will change in the future when women feel more accepted to try the military) therefore the results are skewed,if there was a larger pool of women,the failures wouldn’t affect the entire rates so much.Not all men are tall enough for those walls either,it depends how God uniquely built the person,not if you’re a woman or man. Most men ARE NOT 6ft over,they are 5’10. You can’t take one woman’s experience and say this goes for ALL women. It takes a disciplined person to be able to live dirty,not sex, so if a disciplined woman or man was told she/he cannot bathe,then i’m sure she/he will be fine. I don’t know about you,but I bond with people who have good hearts,not by sex,so…Women who want to be in army shouldn’t be stopped because men will try to hurt them,men who try to hurt should be kicked the heck out. If they get pregnant, then they can leave and reenlist when the time is right. When it comes to hand to hand combat,they will be trained how to fight bigger or smaller people than them just like men should,and enemies will hate you for anything,race,religion,nationality,so it doesn’t matter. Males are going to get back pain too,they’re not super heroes. We are all apples and oranges,because everybody is different. Only certain people pass all tests to make it to combat training,so just know all the women and men there will be qualified to fight for YOUR freedom. I do not like war,but to me this was not a matter of starting more bloodshed,but treating women as human beings with talents and dreams.Many dreamed to fight for freedom so its bull how men have been able to live their dream but not women all these years.

  2. I do agree that some women can fight in combat with men,but the majority wont have the stanima or strenght to.Already 50% couldnt pass the mens basic training where all the men has.One female soldier who was interviewd said its a bad idea to coed,She said unlike most women I have upper body strength like a man and can keep up with them until I get to walls, where I have to ask for help because of my height.Most men are 6ft and over,She also said,”If I was to try to drag a 200lb male soldier to safety,I woul destroy my body”.Its hard enough for a man to do it.Theres also hygiene, men can go days without bathing,most women can’t.Also men need male bonding,something women dont understand about.There’s other issues,sexual harassment,pregnancies,hand to hand combat with a enemy who hates women,and bad back pain for carrying a males soldiers load.Sure,put women in combat,but not with men.Its like mixing apples with oranges.

  3. Kendra & Letha expressed my feelings. I pray women can change the culture of the military, but I fear the price they pay will be great.

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