Analyzing the US military from a Gendered Perspective

Is the US military gendered? In theory, no. But looking at the military in practice, a resounding YES. Legally, there are no restrictions to women who wish to serve in the military and they are supposed to be treated as equals to their male comrades. However, women only make up about 15 percent of the 1.4 million Americans on active military status.[i] So why do men significantly outnumber women? Any other institution depicting this much of a statistical gap between men and women would probably raise a great deal of concern among legislatures, but no one seems to feel that waging a battle against gender socialization in the military is worth the time. This leads me to pose two questions: Why is our military gendered? And more importantly, should it be gendered?

Women have been serving in the US military since the Revolutionary War—whether as nurses, cooks, laundresses, spies, or even as soldiers in direct combat (when they could get away with disguising themselves as men).[ii] During World War II, female pilots began to be organized into the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) and the Army also began to include women among the ranks of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). It wasn’t until after the Vietnam war that the need for a separate women’s corps began to fade and after the disestablishment of the WAC in 1978, enlistment qualification were made equal for men and women to enter the same basic training.[iii] Since then, women’s participation in the military has increased to 15.2% as of 2003, up from 9.8% in 1983.[iv] Looks good so far, but numbers and facts alone can’t answer the question of why our military is gendered.

The vast research on gender roles in the US military shows that gendered attitudes and stereotypes towards women exist. One study examining the increase in risk of suicide among military servicemen found that the military is still dominated by masculinity norms that permeate across every ranking.[v] Another study of the perceptions of men and women in military training at the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets produced strong evidence of gender stereotyping. “For both stereotypes and evaluations of individual cadets enrolled in the training program, men more than women were believed to possess the motivation and leadership qualities necessary for effective military performance, whereas women were believed to possess more feminine attributes that impair effective military performance. Because men and women did not differ on objective measures of military performance, the sex-differentiate devaluations of cadets enrolled in training most plausibly reflect the influence of gender stereotypes rather than performance differences between the sexes.”[vi]

Other studies make an argument for the gender gap in service that is more biologically oriented rather than socially constructed. The requirements for many units require a level of physical capability that many men cannot even reach. This is a possible explanation for why many women (in addition to some men) can’t advance as far as they would like in the military—their bodies physically can’t handle it. Laura Miller produces an argument that feminist activists opposing the combat exclusion policy represent a minority of Army women. She claims that most women just aren’t interested in serving in the army and roughly half believe that they wouldn’t be physically capable of doing what would be required of them.[vii]

A new documentary called “The Invisible War” uncovers a battle of sexual harassment and abuse inside the military that is going downhill, and fast. This could possibly explain not only why women’s numbers in service are so low but also how gendered perspectives of the military (and the people in it) are perpetuated within it’s own ranks. According to the documentary, about 500,000 women serving in the US military have been sexually assaulted, making it more likely for a woman to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.[viii]

Can the military be changed to eliminate gender socialization? The answer is yes, the military could potentially open up all positions to women who can meet all the same physical requirements that men have to meet. The bigger question that makes this a sensitive issue is whether the military should change to eliminate gender socialization. Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced that it would open up more combat positions to women in the US Military. “These 14,000 positions include tank mechanics and frontline intelligence officers. However, about one-fifth of active-duty military positions, including infantry, combat tank units, and Special Operations commando units, will remain off-limits.”[ix] This sparked significant debate in the political sphere over the role of women in the military and just how extensive that role should be. For Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and California Representative Loretta Sanchez, the move was not enough and they expressed disappointment that more positions were not opened up.[x] On the other hand, former senator Rick Santorum expressed the opinion that women in combat could actually compromise missions if their male comrades instinctively attempt to protect their female comrades in danger, losing sight of the mission objective.[xi] Is this a socialized construction of gender speaking, or is there some truth to Santorum’s words? It’s clear that there is a gendered perspective of the military, but whether or not this is a valid perspective is hard to say.

Is it possible to make changes within the military to enhance women’s career opportunities while still respecting a gendered perspective? Perhaps it’s already being done. Also earlier this year, the military tried out a new culturally oriented strategy in its efforts in Afghanistan—female engagement teams. These four to five member units will “accompany men on patrols in Helmand Province to try to win over the rural Afghan women who are culturally off limits to outside men. The teams, which are to meet with the Afghan women in their homes, assess their need for aid and gather intelligence, are part of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s campaign for Afghan hearts and minds. His officers say that you cannot gain the trust of the Afghan population if you only talk to half of it.”[xii] This is hopeful news not just for the women seeking career advancement within the military, but for Afghan women and men as well. Perhaps the military has caught on to something crucial here—if there are some tasks that men perform in the military that women can’t, then are there some things women can do for military operations that men can’t? As the most powerful military operations in the world, this is probably something we can’t afford to overlook.

—By BRS


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Burns, Shaun Michael and James R Mahalik. 2011. “Suicide and Dominant Masculinity Norms Among Current and United States Military Servicemen.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 42, No. 5, pp. 347-353.

[vi] Boldry, Jennifer; Wendy Wood and Deborah A. Kashy. 2001. “Gender Stereotypes and the Evaluation of Men and Women in Military Training.” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 689-705.

[vii] Miller, Laura L. 1998. “Feminism and the Exclusion of Army Women from Combat.” Gender Issues. Pp. 33-64.

[viii] Dick, Kirby. 2012. “The Invisible War.”

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One thought on “Analyzing the US military from a Gendered Perspective

  1. womanstats says:

    Terrific post. It seems that we are moving into an age where DoD is gendered male and the State Department is gendered female. I am not sure this is going to change anytime soon, especially given the sex scandals our top generals are involved in. Also depressing is the fact that the FETs are simply being disbanded as we withdraw from Afghanistan. There seems to be a failure of the imagination concerning women in DoD.

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