THE BLOG
05/23/2013 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

Pulling Rank: Women Lead the Charge Against Military Sexual Assault

Out of great challenges come even greater opportunities to lead. The recent survey revealing 26,000 military members experienced unwanted sexual contact last year is one tragic example of this truth. Even with the military's top brass showing real concern, it is not only men in the Pentagon who are stepping up on this. It is women in Congress.

While women's numbers in the military -- and in elected office -- may be dwarfed by their male counterparts, women in Congress are giving new meaning to the phrase "pulling rank."

They comprise just 18 percent of Congress and a combined 22 percent of the seats on the Armed Services Committees. Yet they've sponsored most of the recent bills addressing military sexual assault. They chair half of the six Senate armed services subcommittees. It will no doubt be these women who lead the charge to change one of oldest boys' clubs.

After all, it is women who most often take on issues affecting women and families -- and they get results when they do. As I've noted in the past, research by political scientists at Vanderbilt University and Ohio State University shows that over the past 40 years, women in the U.S. House introduced twice as many bills as men on civil rights, family-related issues, labor, health, and education (those typically labeled "women's issues").

To be sure, sexual assault is not an issue specifically affecting women, and many men in Congress are active allies. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, one in 100 male veterans report experiencing military sexual trauma. But compare that to one in five of their female counterparts. It is no surprise that it is women in Congress who are disproportionately taking it on.

Take Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) for example. Her bipartisan legislation has the support of Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and places the reporting and decision making for cases of sexual assault in the hands of a trained military prosecutor instead of with the commanding officer. Gillibrand's a vocal champion at the committee level, too. Her pointed questioning at an Armed Services Committee hearing this spring made headlines and sparked action.

Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-Massachusetts) is co-chair of the bipartisan House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and is taking military leaders to task with her outspoken advocacy.

Tsongas's Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environments Act of 2013 bars any military officer from changing or dismissing a court-martial conviction in major cases, including sexual assault. (She is also one of the lawmakers featured in the illuminating, Oscar-nominated documentary Invisible War, which deserves credit for propelling the conversation about military sexual assault into the public sphere).

Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) together introduced a bill to create a special counsel for victims of sexual assault committed by a member of the armed forces.

These proposals are the tangible fruit of women's collaborative labor -- bipartisan bills poised to finally tackle a systemic problem that has for too long been left to the military itself to eradicate. These proposed reforms alone cannot combat a pervasive, cultural problem, of course. But they represent a meaningful starting point.

Sexual assault in the military isn't new. But the faces working to change it are. With more women at the table, we are finally seeing action where the status quo -- overwhelming male leaders -- opted for inaction.

With this seemingly insurmountable challenge, the Pentagon has an opportunity to better protect those who protect us.

I take heart in knowing that if they can't complete the mission, there are several women in Congress proving they will take it on themselves. As Congresswoman Tsongas said, "It's only when you have women at the table, and women as part of the military, that you force change."

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