West Point’s latest scandal is symptomatic of a more basic problem–it is structually sexist, evidenced in women’s low numbers as cadets and staff and compounded by the Army’s under utilization of women and refusal to increase their numbers
This week, the West Point public affairs office told The New Civil Rights Movement that the rugby team scandal’s administrative punishment actions were over and they would not be issuing a statement about those sordid events.
It seems that while the West Point administration may think the issue is over, it is just now becoming a burgeoning issue in the public square, in tandem with an epidemic of sexual abuse, harassment and violence that is apparently endemic throughout the uniformed services. Indeed, rape in the ranks has been openly acknowledged by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as a “plague and a shameful situation that Pentagon leadership is personally ashamed of,” according to numerous media reports.
The West Point non-statement was issued two days after its Board of Visitors meeting this week in which Brenda Sue Fulton, an Obama Administration appointee and a graduate of the fabled first class that included women in 1980, confronted West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, by reading an open letter to the institution’s leadership, which said that she was “deeply troubled” and saw “no evidence that the senior leadership has a clue about the current command climate and its utter contempt for women.”
Fulton was joined in a similar critique by Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), who also confronted Huntoon and stated that the rugby team had besmirched West Point’s reputation and openly questioned Huntoon’s judgement in allowing most of the male cadets involved in the scandal to graduate in May as commissioned officers in the U.S. Army.
In an exclusive to The New Civil Rights Movement, this reporter called Fulton who responded with the following statement about the West Point situation:
“We’ve tried to address this with West Point’s chain of command, to no avail. You’re looking at a culture where men outnumber women six to one, on the staff and faculty as well as in the Corps of Cadets. With 90 percent of Army jobs open to women, there’s no excuse for that number to be kept so low, and no excuse for senior leaders who just simply don’t understand that all their programs are pointless if they don’t hold people accountable.”
Indeed, Fulton’s point about the structual sexism at West Point, could be applied to all the academies and to the uniformed services across the board, despite significant advances since the integration of women into the regular forces in 1973. Fast forward, 40 years later, came the February announcement by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, to open up combat billets to women in the Army and Marine Corps.
This progressive plan to begin training women this year and their subsequent assignment to combat units is a significant undertaking and not to be underestimated, considering the relatively small numbers of women currently serving.
According to the Women’s Research and Education Institute, 204, 714 women were serving on active duty as of September 2011, of which officers constituted 15.9 percent of the Force and enlisted women totaled 14.2 percent, with an overall presence of 14.5 percent.
The Reserve Component has slightly higher percentages, with 18 percent of the total force comprised of women in uniform. In the Army Reserve, women officers comprise nearly one-quarter of the Force, with enlisted women not far behind.
The problem with the small percentages of women serving is that they stand out for their rarity. At lower ranks, they become targets and objects of abuse and ridicule. Even women officers can often be sexually harassed with few if any, sympathetic male officers to turn to. Indeed, reporting sexual abuse can often result in retaliation. Therefore, there is little, if any incentive to report a crime to a chain-of-command which is largely adversarial and unsympathetic to those who are abused.
There really is no good reason to maintain women’s presence at such small numbers.
It’s time to increase the accession of women in the services and raise their presence to at least 33 percent of the force in the next five to 10 years. In the academies, accession should be increased to 50 percent immediately.
Much of the work to effectively prepare women to enter the job force and contribute to an American economy and more broadly, to society writ large, has already been done, by women’s rights advocates more than 40 years ago when they successfully advanced women’s rights to equal access to education.
Indeed, this year marks a seminal event–it has been 41 years since the adoption of Title IX, the federal law that requires all American educational institutions to provide equal opportunity for women at every level of educational experience–from kindergarten to graduate school. This year also marks 36 years since America’s military academies opened their doors to women.
Because of Title IX, women have caught up with men educationally and now surpass men’s enrollments in undergraduate and graduate education programs in the United States. Women are more physically fit since Title IX’s implementation and participate in athletics from grade school to elite levels, including Olympic competition.
And yet, despite these tremendous advances in American society, the military has not tapped into women’s expertise and skills, leaving them to a second-class citizenship in our military and consequently, the military loses out on the potential leadership women could contribute to the military’s overall effectiveness. This second-class stigma, leads to marginalization and creates an atavistic environment, where women become objects of attack and ridicule, as evidenced in the West Point rugby team incident.
Fulton and Sanchez think West Point and the military can do better and have made convincing arguments for those charged with the responsibility to address misconduct, punish appropriately and prevent them from serving when the circumstances are as egregious as the evidence indicates in the case of rugby team. The American military and the women who serve in uniform, deserve so much more, in view of these shocking and shabby current state of military affairs. The next step to take is to increase women’s numbers and expand their utilization immediately. Taken together, America can transform its military, to an even better and more effective military.
Tanya L. Domi is the Deputy Editor of the New Civil Rights Movement. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and teaches human rights in East Central Europe and former Yugoslavia. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi was a nationally recognized LGBT civil rights activist who worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during the campaign to lift the military ban in the early 1990s. Domi has also worked internationally in a dozen countries on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights and gender issues. She is chair of the board of directors for GetEQUAL. Domi is currently writing a book about the emerging LGBT human rights movement in the Western Balkans.
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