Women in the Military

AP Photo of Alexis Hutchinson and son Kamani

Back in November, the Associated Press reported on the case of Alexis Hutchinson, an Army cook and single mother who refused to deploy with her unit to Afghanistan because she had no one to care for her then 10-month-old son, Kamani. Spc. Hutchinson was arrested and charged with offenses that could have led to a court martial. Last Thursday, however, the New York Times reported that Hutchinson received a less-than-honorable, or administrative, discharge instead. (Which means no health care or other benefits.)

Needless to say, Hutchinson’s case caused a lot of controversy. People’s reactions ranged from empathy to outrage. Some felt that she should be court-martialed, because her duty to her country takes precedence over her duty to her child. Others felt that any woman in the military could find herself in the same situation through no fault of her own and that she should be cut some slack. There were those who criticized her for getting pregnant in the first place and others who criticized her mother for pulling out of her agreement to watch Hutchinson’s son.

This case is a prime example of the kind of situation anti-feminists point to when they say that feminism has created more problems than it has solved. But those who think feminism is unnecessary or even wrong don’t know their history. During World War II, women were sought by the military to man desks and do other non-combatant work to free the men up for fighting. Assistant Chief of Staff John Hildring explained that “we have found difficulty getting enlisted men to perform tedious duties anywhere nearly as well as women will do it.” *

When legislation was finally passed establishing the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the men in power insisted that this was only temporary. They wanted it both ways: to exploit women and to dispose of them when their usefulness was over. Many enlisted men bitterly resented women serving their country in any capacity; they felt that women were attempting to take their places and steal their glory.

Even though women were supposedly confined to “safe” positions, they were still often in harm’s way. A clear example of this was the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), which was created to free male pilots for service overseas. These women flew domestically, flying new planes from factories to the ports, but they also flew to provide targets for in experienced artillery trainees.

The friends of one WASP who died in the line of duty had to raise money to send her body home, because the Corps was never given official military status. They also kept it from the woman’s family that she had not even qualified to have an American flag placed over her coffin.*

At least women today not only have the right to serve their country, but also the recognition that goes with it. If there are occasional problems that are unique to women (mainly pregnancy), they should be anticipated and accommodated. Do we really want to go back to the days when women pilots were grounded when they got their periods?*

*p.374-378, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroes, by Gail Collins (2003).

For an in-depth article on the outcome of Hutchinson’s case, go here.