Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Past Sexism in the Present Military

The other day, I started a discussion about Sen. Jim Webb’s 1979 editorial railing against women in the military. The reaction of the general population? “Get over it.” And it made me wonder, if his statements had been about race instead of gender, would people tell me to let it go already? Doubt it. In the grand scheme of things, the past sexist ravings of a potential Vice Presidential candidate aren’t deal breakers. When I cast my ballot in November, I will be voting for Obama and his message of change. However, I believe that his number two also needs to be an agent of change, and this gives me reason to believe that Sen. Webb is not that person.

If we look at race, we can see what happened with Ron Paul. A series of writings dating back to 1978, penned under his name, espouse extreme racist and anti-Semitic views. And instead of people “getting over it,” they were shocked, outraged and disgusted by these views. Paul has claimed that he is not responsible for those writings and that he is not, nor has he ever been, racist. But, no matter, the damning label stuck. Why should sexism be any different?

I have definitely been berated for my lack of forgiveness towards Webb. People asked me if I believe that no one is allowed to change their mind, if I believe that Sen. Byrd is a still a racist (yes, I do), if I think Hillary Clinton is still a Goldwater Girl (sometimes it seemed like it, but no). I do believe that people can change their minds, but I think it’s harder for them to change their hearts. It also leads me to wonder whether we have to forgive and forget everything a person does as long as they apologize for it. Can a person spew hatred and then apologize when his position is no longer popular? “I said some hateful things in the past. Sorry. Here’s a grand gesture to make up for it.” It’s easy to say something that sounds good. It’s also easy to do something that the public supports, whether or not you believe it. In my mind, Sen. Webb will always be accompanied by a question mark when it comes to women’s rights.

As a minority in both the categories of race and gender, I am “lucky” enough to bear witness to discrimination on both points. As a female in the military, I can tell you that sexism is still alive and well. And while I do my best not to be a victim of sexism, it is constantly simmering right underneath the surface, tainting conversations and altering perceptions. I had an officer on my first ship that would send women off their watch stations if they “smelled too good.” Apparently, the first step to being a “real” sailor is not competency or skill, but smelling as if you’ve never been introduced to soap and deodorant. On a daily basis, women in the military are subjected to words and actions that would shock the civilian world. Actions that would get civilian men fired are acceptable in the military. And women often have no choice but to let it slide, lest they be painted as a whiner who can’t hack it.

I was in the 25th class to graduate women at the United States Naval Academy. No person who graduated in that class was alive before women were allowed into the service academies. Yet, there was constant, prevalent discrimination against and belittling of women. In a world of quotas, every woman’s accomplishment was attributed to “filling a quota” not her personal drive or ability. Men, on the other hand, earned everything they received. After my first midterm grades came out, my company officer, a Lieutenant, looked at the grades, and then looked at me and said “Wow, you actually are smart.” Well, gee thanks. I guess he missed the fact that it’s actually harder for women to be accepted into military academies. Approximately 2% of female applicants are accepted, as opposed to 9% for males.

The anti-female feelings still burn strong at our nation’s service academies. Outwardly, many men support women in the military, but behind closed doors, the sentiments are different. I will always be wary of someone who was so passionately against something that they now support. And, allowing women to hold more integrated and combat related roles in the military is still a battle. I don’t consider myself a super-feminist and I’ve been known to speak out against preferential treatment towards women. I believe that it only hinders our advancement and breeds resentment among men. While I attended the Naval Academy, the superintendent took bold steps to advance women, including the outlaw of derogatory terms and even changing the words in the alma mater. I’ve personally spoken with men who are angry and resentful towards women for changing “their” school. One of my neighbors was a 1958 grad who is against women in the military, but liked me and believed in me. He has yet to come around to fully support women in the military, but through me he saw that women were, in fact, compatible with the beliefs and teachings of the Naval Academy.

I think that when a majority of people look at the editorial by Sen. Webb and then his consequent actions, they see enough of a “change” to let it go. I think that these are also people who have never actually been through this warped world. When I look at Sen. Webb, I see someone who was passionately against women in the military. When I read his words, I feel the hatred and derision rising up from the page. I also see a political death trap. Jim Webb has been running from these words since the day he wrote them. What I see is someone trying to compensate for hatred that hides in his heart. I know the two-faced, politically convenient positions that men have taken over the years, and to me, Sen. Webb is no different.

I may never believe that Sen. Webb has truly had a change of heart. His position shift stinks of political convenience not genuine feeling. Unfortunately for Sen. Webb, his 1979 remarks were made at a time when women had demonstrated their competence and ability in technical and leadership positions. He is the one that opened his mouth and let his sexism show. He may see now that women are an integral part of our nation’s fighting force, but that will never fully excuse him from his past behavior. Has he repented? Yes. Willingly and whole-heartedly? We’ll never know. I will always doubt the sincerity of Sen. Webb’s subsequent actions regarding women in the military. It may be unfair or small-minded of me, but I treat claims of reformed sexism the same way I treat those of reformed racism, with skepticism and hesitation.

Click Here To Read Webb's Essay


John E said...

I think the problem for Senator Webb is that he never really moved very far from the position he staked out when he wrote those words. Like many, Webb is certainly flawed, but not without his good points as well. If you can see the man in his other writings -- both about USNA and Vietnam. However, while he can run from his earlier sexist positions, he can't hide from them and has never really moved on from them.

The Public Servant said...

Yes, Sen. Webb did call Tailhook a "witch hunt" more than a decade after he wrote this essay. I do think that he is doing great work in the Senate. I agree with his bill expanding GI Bill benefits and I think we need him and his fighting style in the Senate. However, I think we can do better for a VP.

John E said...

Webb's rejuvenation of the GI Bill of Rights is both out of step with an all volunteer force and counter to the best interest of both the GIs and the military. The military, today is continually exceeding recruiting goals. What is needed is retention of a well-trained force. Webb's bill encourages members of the military to leave after a single enlistment rather than rewarding those who reenlist.
Webb's comment about Tailhook on reinforce his sexist views.

BTW, we are a military family with both vets and members on active duty.

The Public Servant said...

I have to disagree about the GI Bill. Right now, service members simply cannot afford to go to school when they leave the military. I have seen the best laid plans fall by the wayside because the benefits simply aren't there. That money promised to service members goes to waste, and so does a valuable opportunity.

As far as retention problems, I don't see the GI Bill causing these doom and gloom scenarios. People get out of the military because they don't agree with the lifestyle or because of family. Most don't get out solely to go to college. In fact, most who get out don't go to college anyways.

I also disagree with the idea that it's out of step with an all volunteer force. People rarely act benevolently. Something has to be in it for them, and multiple trips to Iraq isn't the big seller. It's the promise of skills, education and experience that they can then apply to the civilian workforce.

And further, they wouldn't be able to accommodate a greater retention percentage. Recruitment numbers are established based on a known attrition rate. The military expects that a fairly small percentage of people will stay in and the system works for that known rate. From my personal interaction, most people have decided whether or not they are career before they take the oath of office. A decent college package won't change that. But, again, I don't see the harm in offering people the opportunity for advancement.

John E said...

I don't think there is any harm in providing the means for advancement. I think that it should be coupled with meeting the needs of the military. The original GI Bill was for a military that was largely a drafted force (and a much larger military). There are a number of recruiting programs today that include generous education benefits after service -- far better than the original GI Bill. It is very difficult to train a highly technical force with a single term of enlistment. We currently offer generous benefits. A nuke SWO today can get a nearly $200,000 bonus for reenlisting!

The Public Servant said...

OK, well I have a few things. You do know that I am a SWO, right? So I sat down and talked with one of the Nuke SWOs in my office this morning about their bonuses. It does come out to approximately $200k because they are able to tap into both the nuclear reactor officer bonus ($25k/year for six years) and the SWO bonus ($75k for six years). However this has actually caused a problem with increased retention. They were forced to drop about 20 officers (out of 50) from the nuclear program because there aren't enough billets for them. And this is just one year group. This pattern will repeat with future year groups. This person I talked with was one who was being sent back to conventional SWO due to the cuts. We only have so many ships, so greater retention isn't what we always need.

But, like I said earlier, the conventional SWO bonus is $75k plus a fully funded master's degree and I have no intention of taking it. Why? Well, two reasons. One, I don't want the Navy to tell me what kind of degree to get and from what school (NPS isn't for me, I've already had one Navy education). And, two, I don't want to stay in the Navy. I'm paying for my master's out of pocket because I don't believe that being a SWO is the best career path for me. And there are a number of people who have similar thoughts. From my experience, people know whether they are going to be career before they take the oath of office, both officer and enlisted. Changing the service benefits of post-service benefits won't dent that.

I also know that there are people who plan on using the GI Bill when they get out, but come to find that they can't because they can't support themselves. A person will get approx $1650/month for expenses. Here at SDSU, about $1400 will go to classes. The rest isn't enough to cover basic expenses. I think Sen. Webb is right that we need to look at whether people are receiving enough. Personally, I don't think it is. The military pays for thousands of people to go to school and live, why shouldn't other people. People who do STA-21 receive a full scholarship and full pay and benefits while in school. We're not talking about doing this for everyone, but let's look at whether people are getting a reasonable, useful sum for their service.

I will tell you one initiative that will harm retention. The military is talking about deferring retirement benefits until age 56. People can still retire after 20 years, but won't be able to recive benefits for almost 20 more years (if enlisted when 18). I have friends that are approaching their 10 year mark, and if this goes through, they're out. One of the reasons people do stay in is because they know that they'll be able to retire with pay and benefits in their late 30s/early 40s. Take that away and retention will go through the floor.

Basically, manpower in the military, just like any company, is pyramid shaped. A few people at the top, many on the bottom. We don't need more people to stay in, we're not built for that (evidence Nuke SWO). However, we are built for attrition, and it is my belief, formed through my military interactions, that people leave the military because they don't fit into the military lifestyle. More people know whether they will stay in or get out before they sign on the dotted line. Changing the GI Bill to actually provide enough post-serivce benefits won't disrupt this process. Frankly, it's the least we can do.

John E said...

I don't want to get started on the take aways from the retirement program over the years. The good retirement benefits have gone the way of the good O Clubs and Commissaries.

The Public Servant said...

Haha, I definitely agree about the commissaries. They are usually pretty bad. The new one here in SD has the best selection I've ever seen, but meat and produce leave a lot to be desired. However, with food prices the way they are, I gladly shop there. It become a necessity.

Bit-Twiddler said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you on the GI Bill. I served during the VEAP years. Hence, I did not leave the Navy because of the stellar post-service educational package -- I left the service because I wanted to get on with my life! As a Data Processing Technician, I received training in computer operations and software development at a time when few people knew anything about computers; therefore, finding post-service employment was a relatively easy task. I also wanted to complete a degree program that I had started during my last tour of duty without having to sign another indenture. I withdrew my VEAP contributions, purchased a car, went to work, and completed undergraduate and graduate programs in computer science on my own dime.

Hip-Hop and Masculinity said...

I appreciate your post. I was wondering if you could check out the U.S. Public Service Academy idea (uspublicserviceacademy.org), which among other things would increase female participation in service academies and let me know what you think.

Marc (peters@uspublicserviceacademy.org)