For U.S. Military Women, Reports Judith Stiehm, the Only Battles Are with Their Reluctant Buddies
07/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
When the Supreme Court ruled last month that women could be excluded from the draft, Judith Stiehm was perturbed. "If someday the military needs women, it will draft them and use them any way it has to," says Stiehm. "Dammit, if you're going to use me when it gets rough, then put me in the peacetime military now when it's a good deal—with clean uniforms and nice benefits."
No, she doesn't suffer from Private Benjamin delusions of yachts and condominiums for recruits. Nor is Stiehm, 45 and an advocate of nonviolence, anxious to see a more militant society. But as a feminist and political scientist, she insists, "Because women can't assume all the risks in the military, we're not taken seriously in a whole variety of ways." During a 13-month period she studied the integration of women in the military, and she claims that the continuing sexism in uniform harms the defense of the U.S. and, indeed, society in general.
Stiehm's new book, Bring Me Men and Women (University of California Press, $19.95), in particular examines the U.S. Air Force Academy ever since it began admitting women in June 1976, on congressional orders. After the arrival of the first coed class, which was 10 percent female, Stiehm shows how the Academy tried with almost touching earnestness to overcome its prejudices—its staff was advised that women do not automatically cry when disciplined, for instance. When Stiehm asked an Air Force general why women, at that time, weren't assigned to be squadron officers, he replied, "We can't risk having a woman in that job. We don't know if people will take orders from her." Stiehm concludes, "To almost every man, it's unthinkable that a woman could defend him."
Problems persist, Stiehm notes. At the Air Force Academy, for example, there still are no high-ranking woman officers directly in charge of cadets. Women are also barred by U.S. law and policy from the combat roles that traditionally lead to advancement in the military. Stiehm scoffs at the usual explanations. The argument that "it just isn't right" is faulty, she says: "In war, men terribly and regularly hurt women on the other side." She concedes that women's physical strength is not comparable to men's, but in modern warfare, she points out, that is rarely relevant. And she says that supposed concerns about women losing their femininity really only mask men's fears that they will lose part of their masculinity if women engage in what has been a uniquely male task.
The volunteer Army, which is now about eight percent female, has in fact "paused" in its recruitment of women because of field commanders' complaints. Maj. Gen. Robert Lewis Wetzel, head of the Army's policy review on women, says between eight and 10 percent of enlisted women are pregnant at any given time, diluting the armed forces' apparent strength. "The wildest story I ever heard," says Stiehm, "was when they were planning for the first coed class at the Air Force Academy and somebody proposed that women cadets be put on the Pill so they could all menstruate at the same time and everyone's exercise level could be reduced."
At home in Santa Monica, Judith now shares her child-rearing responsibilities with husband Richard, 48, a professor of pediatric immunology at UCLA. She says her three daughters don't give the military much thought, "but if they had to register for the draft they'd talk about it nonstop."
Judith and Richard married in 1958, one year after she received her B.A. at the University of Wisconsin, in their hometown of Madison. His medical work kept them on the move, but she got a master's degree in American history at Temple and a doctorate in political theory at Columbia. She joined the USC faculty in 1970 and two years later published Nonviolent Power: Active and Passive Resistance in America. The Stiehms are moving to Washington so Judith can research another book on the military.
Stiehm argues that the problem of sex roles in the military is only a reflection of society at large. "That both women and men are raised almost exclusively by women may lead to a shared understanding that one becomes an adult when one no longer submits to female authority," she says. "There isn't going to be any fundamental change in society until men start sharing in raising children."
For now, Stiehm suggests that all men in basic training be under the direct orders of at least one woman. She explains, "You must train women to give orders, and train men to take them."