Chances are, whether or not you identify as feminist, if you’ve read much about women’s issues you’ll have heard of the Male Privilege Checklist. You also may have heard of at least one of the various Female Privilege Checklists that were made in response. I’m not here to rebut either of those lists word for word (I think they say more about the flaws of the checklist-style posts more than anything else), but I did want to take the opportunity to talk in-depth about the concept of “female privilege” that the checklists are using.
This is the first in what intends to be a series focusing on the common arguments that crop up when people are trying to illustrate instances of “female privilege”, starting with addressing the various claims regarding women and the military. Be forewarned: this post is US-centric.
Women in the military: an introduction
Arguments that in matters related to war women have “female privilege” are made most often by citizens of countries, like America, where women are still barred from full participation in the military. The basic line is that women are recipients of “female privilege” because they are/were exempted from the draft and don’t serve on the front lines.
While, on one hand, there are definitely advantages to such policies, there are several problems with claiming that it’s part of “female privilege”:
- Women were not the ones who created the policies
- Women have fought, and continue to fight, against policies that bar them from equal participation in the military
- The basis for the policies are rooted in benevolent sexism (ie. the idea that women are too precious/fragile to participate)
- Women, both civilian and military, are specifically targeted by brutal tactics such as rape
Far from enjoying a special status that they specifically asked for and wanted, women were simply expected to desire this system because they are seen as “nurturers” who need/want protection from men. Even though this position is, at first glance, advantageous to women, it in fact limits their ability to choose their own career path, reinforces the idea of women as weak, and doesn’t actually protect them from harm.
On the draft
There are two major problems with holding up the draft in America as evidence of “female privilege”. The first and foremost is that the draft was discontinued in 1973 in favor of the All Volunteer Force. To put that in some historical perspective, the draft “hasn’t been activated in the U.S. since women weren’t allowed into the Ivy Leagues or to sit on juries in Texas” (Marcotte). In that way, rather than being a privilege, being exempted from the draft is better seen as an example of how women were not seen as full citizens of the United States during the time when it was still in practice.
The second problem with using the draft as evidence is that the most recent attempt to get the military draft reinstated in the US, the Universal National Service Act, provides that “young men and women ages 18-26 could be called to service” [emphasis mine]. So, in fact, if the US ever reinstates a military draft it will reflect the current attitudes towards women’s ability to participate in the military.
Policies on and participation of women in the military
According to the Facts About Women in the Military, 1980-1990 factsheet, when the draft ended and the All Volunteer Force began, the military saw a substantial increase in women who joined its ranks; it went from 1.6 percent in 1973 to 10.8 percent in 1989. The numbers seem to say that there are a fair amount of women out there who don’t see being kept out of the military as a “privilege” and would rather have the opportunity to serve their country in the same way that men can.
Currently, women in the US military are confined to positions that will, for the most part, keep them out of active combat. While it can be argued that it is less dangerous to be barred from active combat situations and restricted to a support role, it can’t be called a “privilege” when it contributes to women being passed over for promotions and other situations necessary for advancement and recognition in their careers:
Whether statutory, or a matter of service policy, these prohibitions bar women in many career fields from being assigned to positions necessary or advantageous to advancement and promotion. In the U.S. armed services overall, 50 percent of military jobs are open to women, but the percentages vary greatly by service.
The truth is, when looked at more carefully the idea of women being restricted in their participation in the military is not an advantage, but rather a disadvantage. It hinders women’s ability to protect their country and their families, as well as hurts their chances of advancing because they have fewer venues than men to show off their skills.
It’s also worth noting that these policies are not absolutes; they have undergone revision and will most likely undergo more revisions in the future. An example of this is that, in 1991, a previous law barring the assignment of women to airfare combat positions was repealed and a commission was set up to examine the issues concerning women’s participation in combat (Walch, 1993). Also, just because America has these kinds of policies doesn’t mean that all countries bar women from active combat. Canada’s military, for instance, began integrating women into active combat units and naval vessels in 1987 (CBC News).
The reasoning is rooted in benevolent sexism, not privilege
While it might, at first, seem to be an advantage, or a privileging of women over men, for people to make arguments like “female life is more precious so we need to keep them out of harm’s way” or “men make war to protect women”, it is in fact an expression of benevolent sexism which is used to reinforce the ideas that women are weaker than men (and therefore need to be protected).
I’m going to discuss a few of the points that The Happy Feminist addresses in her post on women in combat:
1) Women are not as brave as men, or as psychologically tough as men.
This one is a fairly obvious use of the “women are weak” argument, which is pretty clearly sexist and therefore not advantageous to women.
2) It’s worse when women die or suffer hardship than when men die or suffer hardship.
This argument (that women’s lives are more valuable than men’s) does, on the surface, appear to privilege women. But in fact it’s putting women in a gilded cage (much like chivalry). If it wasn’t used, as in situations like these, to deny women rights and privileges that men have and women want then perhaps there would be a case for it being a privilege for women to be considered “more valuable”. As it stands, it’s just a more flowery way of saying women are weak and need to be protected.
4) Male soldiers will put themselves at risk to protect female soldiers.
This is more of the same above: it is patronizing to set up women as weak creatures in need of protecting. It is sexist, not advantageous, when we are told by men that our desire to defend ourselves and our countries would be a distraction because they are unable to trust that we can take care of ourselves (like adult human beings with military training should be able to).
5) If women are in combat, men will no longer feel the need to protect women in other areas of life.
Again, this is an example of benevolent sexism as it utilizes the “good girl”/”bad girl” dichotomy. It’s pretty much explicitly stating that if women transgress the gender roles that were laid out for them then they will lose the “privilege” of being protected by men. Which goes back to what I said above about how it’s patronizing and restricting to be told that you’re not allowed to defend yourself (and your country) because of your sex/gender.
Being kept from combat doesn’t protect women from war’s brutality
War is to gender like fire is to everything in its sight—different materials may burn up differently, but in the end they’re all just burned up.
While it is ostensibly a privilege for women to be kept from war (and/or the front lines) in order to be protected from its brutality, the reality (especially with the way that modern warfare is waged) it is not, in fact, soldiers who bear the highest costs of war, but rather civilians.
Of course, the bigger point to be made here is that war exerts a profound and particular violence on women. Civilian females raped by maruading troops, female soldiers raped by their own comrades, military wives at home killed by their returning husbands — war and militarism hit women hard. This runs contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that war is the special burden of men, the great sacrifice that males give for their country.
Dr. Socks has a point and a later statement (not quoted) about civilian casualties far outweighing that of military deaths is also supported by the data:
Collateral damage, the number of civilians dying in war, is increasing each time, until 99.15% of the causalities are civilians, not military.[David M. Boje (Peace Aware) Sanctions: U.S. Violations of the Geneva Convention.]
Also see the casualty tolls for World War II, Vietnam war, and the Iraq war. For a more global-based discussion, please refer to Milton Leitenberg’s Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century [pdf].
What that comes down to is this: in modern warfare, soldiers do not bear the heavier burden, but it is rather civilians who bear the brunt of the casualties and other fallouts of war. This is said not to downplay the hardships that soldiers face, but rather to point out that arguing that women are “privileged” because “men defend women in times of war. More men die than women to defend the peace. Far far more men.” (as commenter MansVoice did) is not supported by the casualty reports of recent wars.
It should also be noted that women are handed a disadvantage that their male counterparts don’t have to deal with: systematic rape. It’s no secret that rape has been one of the weapons of war throughout history. This is, needless to say, not advantageous for women.
The system that enables rape to be used in this way is exactly the same one that argues for keeping women out of war: benevolent sexism. While this, on the surface, seems to not make a lot of sense (nothing about rape is “benevolent”) consider this:
Rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries, she said.
“Women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community,” she said.
“Therefore if one group wants to control another they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the opposing community.”
It is because women are seen as the “reproducers and carers of the community” — a role assigned to them as part of benevolent sexism — that they are targeted.
A lot of what people put forth as “female privilege” are really a collection of traditions and assumptions that on the surface may appear to be advantageous, but when examined in detail turn out to reinforce sexist stereotypes about women. Furthermore, these “advantages” more often than not are used to justify discrimination and sexism against women.
The example of women’s participation in the military is a prime example of this. The narrative of “female privilege” represents the hurdles that are placed in the way of women’s ability to fully participate in the military and spins it as if it is a double standard that places women above men. However, if you take into account the actual effect that this way of thinking has on women, far from being an advantage, it is in fact something that limits women’s choices for a career and makes it harder for them to succeed if they do choose to enter the military.
Facts About Women in the Military Around the World:
- (CBC News): Women in the Canadian military.
- (CBC News): Women in the military — international.
- Women’s Research and Education Institute (Feminism and Women’s Studies) Facts About Women in the Military, 1980-1990.
- Amanda Marcotte (Pandagon) Casting unfair guilt by association on meals ready to eat and magnetic resonance imaging
- John Weston Walch, Kate O’Halloran (Case and Controversies in U.S. History, 1993): “Unit 49: Women in Combat” (pp. 115-117).
- (Answers.com): women in the military.