Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Women at war: America's female veterans

by Molly Borowitz

If you’re looking for a modern-day complement to the BBC’s exposé on Russia’s female fighter pilots, the NYT has an article this week about American female veterans suffering from PTSD. The author, Damien Cave, emphasizes the specific repercussions the disorder has for women, and the ways in which they experience it differently from men. Vivienne Pacquette, a 52-year-old mom who spent 20 years in the army (including two tours in Iraq), puts it this way: “After all, I’m a soldier, I’m an NCO, I’m a problem solver. What’s it going to look like if I can’t get things straight in my head?”

The number of women veterans who return from active duty with mental disorders is staggering. In June 2008, the number was already over 19,000. In general, Army officers and researchers say, their female soldiers cope with stress just as well as their male soldiers, and the sexes see about the same proportion of mental trauma. Yet Pacquette’s attitude is indicative of a larger trend amongst female veterans suffering from stress disorders; rather than seeking help, they isolate themselves. Aside from the fact that women are more likely to be isolated within their units (since the majority of the deployed population is male), Cave explains that societal pressures and military memories often lead women to view their struggles as invalid—whether because they feel their experiences don’t justify the development of a disorder, or because they worry that the Army won’t recognize mental illness in women, since combat is still nominally an all-male activity. Although Congress has never formally approved changes to the military regulations that bar women from participating in ground combat, commanders of resource-starved units in Iraq and Afghanistan have quietly slipped under the tape and introduced their women soldiers to fighting on the front lines. As such, while female veterans may have performed the same duties as their male counterparts, they are less likely to receive recognition for their services—especially from the public.

As Cave explains, “At home, after completing important jobs in war, women with the disorder often smack up against old-fashioned ignorance: male veterans and friends who do not recognize them as ‘real soldiers’; husbands who have little patience with their avoidance of intimacy; and a society that expects them to be feminine nurturers, not the nurtured.”

Vivienne Pacquette’s story illuminates the extent of the shame women veterans feel at their inability to cope, and the incredible damage it can cause to their mental health. Upon returning from her first tour in Iraq, Mrs. Pacquette woke her twin sister in the middle of the night by leaping out of her bed and crouching on the floor, her arms tensed as if holding a weapon. She was still asleep. A military doctor diagnosed her with PTSD in 2005, but she refused any treatment and in fact returned to Iraq for a second tour six months later, because she “didn’t want anyone to know” about her disorder.

Women suffering from PTSD generally experience all the same symptoms that men do—insomnia, nightmares, fear of crowds, survivor’s guilt, depression, and fits of rage—but often have greater difficulty coping with anger, aggression, and paranoia because they are less socially-acceptable behaviors for women than for men. Dr. Carri-Ann Gibson, head of a veterans’ trauma recovery program in Florida, explains that “the hardest part for women is that they often feel ashamed and guilty because ‘they’re not supposed to punch a wall, they’re not supposed to get aggressive with their spouse.’” In general, she says, people are more forgiving of a man’s struggle to readjust; but they often expect women just to “snap back into domestic routines without any trouble.”

This feeling of guilt is especially pronounced for women with families. After months of isolation on duty (there are rarely multiple women in one unit, and while many female soldiers report that their male colleagues treat them with respect, many others face harassment, ostracization, and a constant pressure to prove themselves), they are conditioned to push other people away, to shut them out. This desire for isolation and the shortened temper it causes make it difficult to interact with loved ones, and especially children. Aimee Sherrod, a 29-year-old mother of two (diagnosed with PTSD but untreated), can’t bring herself to take her children to Chuck E. Cheese or to the park, because open spaces and loud, sudden noises make her too uneasy. She says she is easily frustrated, and often shouts at her children when they’re crying or making too much noise, sometimes threatening to hit her four-year-old.

Unfortunately, the struggle doesn’t end there. The constant emotional battle to maintain one’s calm and interact normally with one’s family is complicated by an incessant barrage of public prejudice and ignorance. Women veterans face questions like, “Did you kill anyone?”, “How was the shopping?”, “In that heat, how did you wear makeup?”, and even “How could you have PTSD when you sat at a desk with a typewriter?” Even women who attempt to combat the stereotypes with bumper stickers or decals identifying them as veterans find themselves passed over—while people thank and by drinks for the men with them, who’ve never put on a uniform. The military and the V.A. are working hard to enlighten the public about women’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan through advertisements, documentaries, and increased access to medical care, but it’s a slow process. For now, it seems, the women who sacrifice their lives to serve our country are doomed to face prejudice on every front—whether in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan or the First-World jungles of the United States.

Photo via the U.S. Department of Defense website.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quick hit: Russia's WWII fighter pilots

by Molly Borowitz

If you're at all interested in feminist history or women in the military, the BBC has an amazing audio exposé on Russia's version of Rosie the Riveter. Did you know that the Soviet Union's Air Force had three all-female regiments during World War II? They were called Stalin's Falcons, and all told these female fighter pilots flew more than 30,000 missions along Russia's Eastern Front during the war, inspiring such terror in their enemies that they acquired the nickname "Night Witches."

The audio, a compilation of interviews with some of the Russian pilots, accompanies photographs of the women at their camps, in their planes, and in the skies. There are also sneak peeks at an upcoming graphic novel by an Irish-American author, telling the story of the prejudice they overcame to become legends. The all-female regiments, originally the brainchild of world-record-setting female pilot Marina Raskova, were recruited exclusively from volunteers eager to assist their country in the war effort. While beset by tragedies (at times the women were not allowed to wear parachutes, and many died in air), their military prowess was such that rumors spread amongst the German troops that Russian scientists had injected these women with powerful chemicals to improve their night vision.

All told, the piece is about 3 minutes long, and well worth your time. Definitely check it out if you get the chance!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Leslie Sanchez on feminism and media sexism - a balanced picture?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Last week, Equal Writes received its first review copy of a book: CNN correspondent Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe, an exploration of the media fiasco surrounding Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama during the 2008 election. I was excited, and took the book on vacation with me. It was a good choice for fall break reading – at 194 pages, it goes pretty quickly – but because I don’t know much about Sanchez’s politics (she’s quite conservative – maybe the shout-out from Sean Hannity on the back cover should have tipped me off), I didn’t expect the book to be quite so unbalanced.

Sadly, rather than being a candid exploration of the sexism of the media, the book was a thinly disguised rant about why Clinton did not win (and did not deserve to), and why Palin should have. Michelle Obama, relegated to a chapter titled “Ladies First,” where she was extensively compared to Clinton and Laura Bush and actually criticized by Sanchez for her fashion choices (one hates to say it, but – media sexism…?), was completely hung out to dry. There were moment where Sanchez tried to be balanced, put aside her evident distaste for both Clinton and Obama, and pointed out the nasty realities about the way sexism and gender are perceived in America, as when she compared the “iron my shirt” incident at a New Hampshire town hall to a hypothetical scenario, where a heckler shouted “shine my shoes” at Barack Obama. “My bet is,” Sanchez wrote, “that if ‘shine my shoes’ had been the slogan of the day, it would have galvanized us as a community and fomented protests in a way that just didn’t happen when Clinton was asked to iron shirts. In a way, that couldn’t happen because she is a woman, and as a culture, we don’t yet take sexism nearly to heart the way we do racism.”

Okay. So Sanchez is conservative, and I’m not. She still acknowledged the fact that Clinton, Palin and Obama were subjected to an unfair media circus, and that most of these attacks were sexist. Where the book started to go off the rails, for me, was when Sanchez began to indict “traditional feminists” (a term that she never really defined, but still freely associated with adjectives like “brash” and “shrill” – even “pushy broad”) for refusing to defend Palin. Sanchez seems still to be puzzled by the fact that many women did not immediately jump on to the McCain bandwagon when Palin was added to the ticket, that Palin’s “energy and passion…her incredible story of hard work and independence” did not lead people like me to completely overlook her lack of qualifications and terrible policies. Yes, some of the noise surrounding Palin was sexist – but some of it was genuine concern over the idea that this intensely underqualified woman might actually become vice president. Being a feminist does not require that I immediately support whatever female candidate is thrown on the ticket – and had feminist groups like NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation, who Sanchez pillories for not leaping to Palin’s side, actually defended Palin, they would immediately have lost my support.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was Sanchez’s focus on younger women – what they want from a candidate, and why they “abandoned” Clinton and Palin for Barack Obama. She suggests that this is because we (meaning younger women) are in some sense post-feminist, and don’t want a candidate that represents second-wave feminism, like Clinton. As for Palin, she seems to blame the media coverage for not presenting Palin as a serious candidate rather than acknowledging that young women might have preferred to elect Obama, who was much more pro-woman than McCain (and let’s not forget that it was McCain, and not Palin, who was going to be president). The thing is, Obama had the right policies, and the right message of change. Young women didn’t “refuse” Clinton because she had the label of “feminist.” They chose Obama because he was equally a feminist, an idea that Sanchez never airs. Instead, she chooses to indict young women for criticizing Palin’s policies on abortion, guns, taxes and national defense, instead making it a question of Palin’s “femininity and womanhood.” Let me make this clear: I was one of those young women who criticized Palin, and was frightened by the thought that she might be elected. And although I was disgusted by the accusations that she might have been unqualified for office because of her young child, or the constant references to her “beauty queen” past, I was able to separate that disgust from reasonable criticism – because I am a feminist.

I agree with Sanchez that “feminism” is not something that is particularly appealing to young women. But that’s because of books like this that repeat and reify the idea that all feminists are shrill and pushy, and that there is a more appealing (and apparently, conservative) alternative. Was Sarah Palin a good alternative to feminism? Absolutely not. Is the media, often, sexist? Yes. Let’s separate out the two. Sanchez could have written a shorter book defending Palin, and it would have been a more concise version of You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe – because by the end she degenerated to criticizing Michelle Obama’s “too-tight dresses” and calling Hillary Clinton “whiny.” Media sexism is a complicated issue, and one that deserves to be discussed. But this book only skimmed the surface, and was too interested in defending one woman at the expense of another to add anything new to this conversation. I also can't help noticing that this book's release coincides suspiciously with the release of Sarah Palin's memoir later this month (something I'm sure we'll be covering when it comes out) - but maybe I'm just being another hysterical, paranoid feminist.