This Man's Army? Women and Heroic Labor

Lead author: Lorraine Dowler, Associate Professor of Geography and Women's Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her current book project "Brave Broads" is an examination of women's heroic labor in the U.S. military, firefighting, and the U.S. space program.

This Labor Day marks the moment that we, as Americans, really begin to think differently about heroic labor as jobs for men only.

The graduation of Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shayne Haver, the now (in)famous women who graduated from Army Ranger School on August 21, is a distinction that disproves stereotypes that have been used to justify the universal ban on women in combat units. As a result of their superior performance, Greist and Haver earned the prestigious Army Ranger's Tag, one of the highest recognitions of physical strength and emotional fortitude. This acknowledgement is especially important given that all military branches must integrate women into ground combat units by January 2016 or provide evidence-based research for combat exclusion. The 2016 deadline was a result of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff 2013 decision to lift the ban on women in combat.

Instead of centering the debate on whether women are strong enough, we pose a more relevant question: What types of strength are needed in the military? This goes far beyond the adage 'add women and stir.' The U.S. military and civilian leadership need to consider how a diversification of skill sets can create a more innovative, responsive and forward-thinking military.

Military testing of physical strength is based on taken for granted benchmarks based on male bodies. How might we test for other necessary capabilities such as agility, composure, improvisation, emotional courage, and other necessary competencies while serving in challenging and rapidly shifting combat conditions? Perhaps by taking inspiration from firefighting, military testing can be revised to test for the optimal composition of qualities that not only focus on defense of the nation but service to local communities.

Fire chiefs recognize that working within a community requires a firefighter to be a jack-of-all-trades. Although firefighters require a benchmark for strength, in terms of daily activities, their work extends far beyond physicality. In their everyday lives, firefighters fulfill roles ranging from mechanics to social workers, in addition to the more hazardous duties in emergency situations. Similar to soldiers, combat ready firefighters - both women and men - have a wide range of responsibility requiring flexibility and creativity.

Removing gender as a barrier to heroic labor is only one part of a complex questioning of how to strengthen our military in light of changing geopolitical conditions and national security priorities. The graduation of Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shayne Haver is more than two women beating the odds. It is part of a larger diversification of heroic labor that enables systemic and institutional change. These important milestones signal an important cultural shift for our country. Cultivating nuanced skill sets produces more resilient and robust American institutions that are not reliant on the image of the male hero. Ultimately, as we have seen in the case of firefighting, this shifts the focus away from geopolitical militarization and towards local community service.