Defining women's rights, both in terms of legislation and practicality, is like jamming a square peg into a round hole. It simply can't be done. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It just means that the difficulties in doing so presented by the very nature of women, and men for that matter, should be acknowledged. The more honest we are, the more likely we are to find a way to define what is fair and then to actually abide by what we decide.
Recently Army Major General Anthony Cucolo stirred things up by speaking honestly about women in a combat zone that become pregnant. He spoke about the military effort, how much he needed each and every soldier in his command, what we are there to do, the solemn responsibility of each soldier to fulfill his or her duty, and how disruptive and costly it is when a female soldier has to be sent home for becoming pregnant. Thus he justified his policy to reprimand women, and men where possible, for behavior that puts the mission at risk, boldly declaring that the National Organization for Women was not responsible for his command.
Immediately various women's rights groups and even female members of Congress rose up with indignation that a woman would be punished for conceiving a child. These same protesters no doubt strongly supported women serving in combat zones in the first place. But it seems there is a double standard in the equality argument. We want women to be there but we don't expect them to act like soldiers when they get there? The oath every military member takes does not include an exception for sex and a resulting pregnancy. It is a job requirement to not be pregnant. But therein lies the problem. If a soldier has the physical ability to become pregnant, and chooses to engage in behavior which can cause that pregnancy, behavior that most agree cannot and should not be regulated, then how wise is it to rely on that soldier in a combat zone? This is not the same as the private sector where a pregnancy creates inconvenience and has to be accommodated in the workplace and thus can be subject to legislation. In a combat zone, pregnancy threatens readiness. Lives are at stake. That is why women historically haven't served in combat zones. Men are generally considered to be more suited to the job. They don't have menstrual cycles, they are physically stronger, and some would say better psychologically suited to the rigors of the job.
Combat zones are stressful. Sex takes on a new meaning under those conditions, more intense, perhaps creating a stronger urge due to the risk and danger inherent in the situation. The "tomorrow could be our last day" set-up can be a powerful motivation. Should we be ignoring the very essence of men and women, their natural urges, the access that they now have to each other in the most stressful, most threatening situation imaginable? The very fact that women can immediately be identified as the female half of the couple that created a pregnancy, and the man cannot, speaks to how impossible it is to be equal in this situation. The difference in the male and female body dictates the fairness of the policy. So why is this so hard for us as a society to accept? Has equality for its own sake eclipsed the very essence of the differences between the genders?
Somewhere along the line, this is exactly what has happened. Senator Al Franken's amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill illuminated the policy of fine print in employment contracts that virtually allowed defense contractors such as Halliburton to sweep sexual violence under their own corporate carpet because they knew it was part of "equality" in a war zone.
Equality provides opportunity whether it be women in combat zones serving side by side with men, or male and female college students in co-ed dormitories. This is reality, not a myth that legislation can ignore.
And if women can be punished and sent home, away from the duty that they promised to uphold in their military oath, because they become pregnant, then should they be sent overseas if they have small children, especially infants? Are we saying that as long as their bodies are carrying a fetus, they cannot serve, but as soon as that child is born, they can leave and go back to serving? It is unbearably painful to see the photographs and read the stories about women who leave their newborns and small children to ship out to Iraq or Afghanistan. Now equality is robbing an innocent child of the love and care of a birth mother at a crucial time in their young lives and putting women through separation anxiety that is unparalleled. This is costly for women personally, society in general and contrary to maternal instinct, one of the most powerful forces in nature.
It is important to note that General Cucolo went out of his way to point out the extraordinary value of the women in his command. No one is suggesting otherwise, certainly not in this post. And this difficult issue speaks to a small minority, albeit important enough for General Cucolo to find it necessary to establish policy. But it seems that in this particular case, the biggest challenge of equality is presented by the way we are made, by God or whomever or whatever we each choose to believe. The sooner we accept and acknowledge that fact, the wiser and more competent we will become in such matters. As women, we shouldn't be inflexible regarding equality. I know we feel we have a lot of injustice to make up for and that is a fact. But aren't we the gender that is supposed to excel in compassion, emotional nuance, and compromise? If we can do that without sacrificing ourselves, the very essence of who we are, then we will grow into the magnificent power of femininity.
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