The Glory of Being Female

One of the most contentious battlefields has got to be the female body. Everybody wants a piece of it.

That’s why the recent decision to allow women in the military to serve in direct combat has an anticlimactic feel to it.

The same day Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced his decision, in the hours before or after, the news was also filled with such stories as the practice of slut-shaming or posting revealing photos of teenage girls on Facebook to “slut-shame” them.  And news about still another in the never-ending protests against a female’s right to abortion.

But on any given day, at any given hour, you can find something in the news about something being done to another human simply because she’s female. At least it’s news if the facts are egregious enough. Mostly it’s routine and local, e.g. a man wanted for tackling young women near a college campus.

During the recent Portland trial of accused terrorist Mohamed O. Mohamud, the females in his family sat in court, their heads and upper bodies swaddled in veils.  It was a reminder that one of the world’s major religions approaches the female appearance with caution, blaming it for inspiring lust in men. (Instead of blaming a female’s attractiveness for agitating men, why not shift responsibility to males who can’t control themselves: Make them wear blindfolds in public if they are that weak.)

To be female just about anywhere on this planet is to be an easy target for someone’s religion or aggression or lust.

Women have had to develop their own brand of courage, even during peace time. And war time?

Look at the footage or photos from any of the wars we’ve had since the advent of photography. When cities, towns, villages, farms are attacked or invaded, what happens to the women and children? Whatever the men with guns want, that’s what.

The 303-page “LIFE Goes to War,” picture history of WWII, has photographs that today’s publishers wouldn’t dare run without an apology or that attention-getting disclaimer, “The following material may be objectionable to some.”

There is this note of explanation reprinted from 1938: “The love of peace has no meaning unless it is based on a knowledge of war’s terrors. Dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”

As photos throughout this book make clear, it wasn’t just men who died. On one page is a photo of a Chinese baby, “who howls pitifully in Shanghai’s South Station,” a victim of the Japanese. On the opposite page, a man grabs the shirt of a dead toddler and carries the limp body to a stack of coffins.

In the next few pages “a jubilant Japanese general” raises a cup of wine in a victory toast, and Japanese soldiers give a rousing “banzai” to celebrate their occupation of Chinese territory. Google “Rape of Nanking” if you want to know what happened to the women.

The exact number of women and children who died in World War II will never be known. When I edited a special section for The Spokesman-Review on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, all of the varying estimates I found agreed on one fact: More civilians died than military personnel.

One image came back to me during the argument over women in combat. It was from Spokane veteran George Julien of the U.S. Army’s 695th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. He was traveling by Jeep through a German town where he had seen a girl shot the day before.

“When I went through this time … there she was, all ground up with all the tanks and trucks running over her.”

Yes, let us spare women the hardships of combat.

The index of  “LIFE Goes to War” has entries under “women, in front lines” and “women, in uniform.” There are brief mentions of women in Polish cities digging trenches and laying land mines while the streets were littered with corpses. There is a photo of Russian women in dresses fighting fires. In bombed-out London there is a picture of a weary woman saluting a rag-tag regiment of the Women’s Mechanized Transport Training Corps.

But the index in “LIFE Goes to War” holds more substantial entries under “women, for morale.” That’s what most females were expected to do. Boost morale. An example: “LIFE followed starlet Marilyn Hare on her unusual pursuit: to kiss 10,000 soldiers.”

Not surprisingly, one of the most famous war photos was the kiss picture showing a sailor grabbing a woman in a nurse’s uniform and forcing her backwards in a victory kiss.

There was a little known side to this scene that I didn’t realize until I edited that special section. A former Navy WAVE named Elaine Spencer recalled venturing into New York City on Victory Day with a female friend. As they rode through Manhattan, “all hell broke loose.”

Soldiers tore Spencer’s hat off and tried to strip her friend and assault her. Spencer rescued her friend, and they both made it to a train.

“To this day I am embarrassed for the military personnel – how they reacted … It was disgusting.”

Those are the kinds of war stories that belong only to women.

“Why do boys have all the fun?” Abigail Adams’ daughter, Nabby,  asked her in the HBO series “John Adams.”

“Because we let them,” Abigail replies, as she and her daughter work the fields while John is away in the Revolutionary War.

War isn’t fun. What the girl is really asking is why men have all the glory. The accomplishments and travails of sons, husbands and fathers were important, while the lives of daughters, wives and mothers were not.

Columnist Kathleen Parker, who is opposed to women in combat, wrote that “We can train our men to ignore the screams of their female comrades, but is this the society we want to create?”

She is assuming that women in combat will scream. Chances are they will react under fire the same as most males, because humans of both sexes have a self-preservation instinct. They will fight back if given the means.

In the 21st Century, though, all of this may be moot. How much combat and glory are involved in sitting at a console in Nevada and flying drones over Iraq and Afghanistan?

“Having a strong bladder and a big butt may be more useful physical attributes than being able to do 100 pushups,” technological warfare expert P.W. Singer told NPR’s Terry Gross.

Drones and women in combat. What would Gen. George S. Patton think?

He probably wouldn’t need anyone to remind him that all glory is fleeting.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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