It’s been a big couple of weeks for equality in militaries around the world. In the US, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended (hurray!) and in Australia this week it was announced that women will now be able to serve alongside men in all frontline roles. Cue opinion columnists.
Greg Sheridan argues that women are not up to the task physically. Clive Hamilton laments the loss of women’s ‘subtle, civilising power‘ that such a move represents. Both are concerned that we not so conflate men and women’s differences that we see no difference between them. Fair enough. Celebration of femininity is key to feminist objectives.
But what annoys me about Sheridan and Hamilton’s arguments is the way they way they argue it. Both attempt to provide evidence for why women ought not to be in combat, in Sheridan’s case, that they’re not up to the task; in Hamilton’s case, that society will lose something. But these arguments do not hold true in every case. If you can provide one exception, you immediately defeat both men’s arguments.
And yet, both men tie their arguments to a broader notion of chivalry, of men protecting women and children as somehow morally right. That may not have anything to do with who is better at it. It may have more to do with how we expect gender to be performed.
Hugo Schwyzer writes of walking a female guest to her car at night even though his wife is a skilled martial artist. Even though his wife would be more ‘useful’, should an attacker come upon them, he performs the chivalrous role. It doesn’t make sense, but it does bring both of them pleasure, for him to fulfill that typically masculine role, so it’s OK, good even. It’s this pleasure, this sense of serving each other, which is important rather than who is necessarily ‘best’ for the role.
If you speak in generalities, men are generally stronger than women. But not all men are stronger than all women. Sheridan’s concern that standards will be lowered to allow women in could be argued the other way as well – what if there’s a woman for the job who is replaced by an inferior man simply because of his gender?
There’s more at stake here than the question of simply who is stronger or better and conservatives would argue their case far more strongly if they were honest about that. This is a discussion that exists at the level of values – should physical capacity be the main criteria for military service or accepted gender roles?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.