Musing on Gender Integration in the Military with Simone de Beauvoir

tags: gender, feminism, military history, literature, womens history

Bill Bray is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Forty years after the first military service academy classes with women graduated and 25 years after some combat roles were opened to women, gender integration and equality in the military remains incomplete and a challenge for the services. Just in the past decade or so, there have been dozens of studies on the subject, including more than 20 in the Marine Corps alone.

Issues such as male-on-female sexual assault, which remains a persistent problem, and a low female officer retention rate compared with their male counterparts are two examples. When I entered the Naval Academy in 1984, women had been there for just short of a decade. Jim Webb’s 1979 Washingtonian article, “Women Can’t Fight,” was still a source of great controversy. In 1987, Navy Lt. Niel Golightly published “No Right to Fight” in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The tone of Webb’s article is one of foreboding — the United States, through this misguided social experiment, is imperiling its national security, and someday this will become tragically apparent. (Webb would go on to become a U.S. senator from Virginia.) Golightly’s argument centers on the widely held view at the time that integrating women into combat units would undermine combat effectiveness, because on a deep psychological level, men’s martial spirits are fueled by a need to protect women (Golightly has since renounced this position). These views may be harder to openly express today, but they nevertheless linger not far beneath the surface in discourse on the topic, as Megan Mackenzie demonstrates well in her recent book, Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight.

Late in my Navy career, I worked on gender integration and other personnel challenges while serving as a Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group fellow in Newport, Rhode Island. While I was a fellow, I sought a deeper understanding of the sources of gender inequality. In doing so, the best book I read was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe), a remarkable work of social, historical, and philosophical criticism from one of the great Existentialist philosophers of the 20th century. De Beauvoir was not the first writer to attempt a serious analysis of the subject — think of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1861), for example. However, as Deirdre Bair explains, “Simone de Beauvoir was the first writer on the subject of women who examined all existing systems of inquiry through the philosophical methodology of Existentialism.” It is a powerful and comprehensive inquiry — a book I wish I had read earlier in my career. It remains quite relevant to the discussion of gender equality in the military today. If nothing else, reading de Beauvoir’s monumental achievement makes it clear that the effort to integrate women into the military rests on a rich philosophical tradition, rather than (as many of its detractors have it) an intellectually flimsy partisan agenda that cares little about military effectiveness.

The first ship on which I served (from 1988 to 1992) had an all-male crew, but subsequent sea tours were on ships with mixed-gender crews. In my many years in uniform discussing this topic with other men in the military, many, although certainly not all, exhibited a genuine sense of fairness for women in the military. I believe I was fair as a leader, yet not until my year as a fellow did I think or read well enough on the status of women in the military, or in society at large. It enriched my perspective and, had I read it earlier in my career, would have anchored my judgments in a deeper foundation of understanding and respect.

Read entire article at War on The Rocks

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