So Many Gender Barriers Abolished in One Lifetime
Though I still harbor a doubt or two in terms of the sheer practicality of the thing, I salute the U.S. military for officially junking the rule against women in combat. About time.
We think of the armed forces as tradition-bound, but they have been forerunners in such matters. It was way back in the late 1940s that President Harry S. Truman integrated the services racially. And by the time I entered the Army in 1960, I was taken with how equality in the ranks had become an absolute, everyday reality — in stark contrast with many ugly aspects of civilian life.
Now that women are free, in principle, at least, to fight on the front lines (if there are such things anymore), it’s hard to think of a single official gender barrier that remains standing in American society. Oh, women still can’t play in the NFL, I suppose, but what the heck.
Last week’s announcement set me to thinking about how much progress we have made toward sexual equality just in my lifetime. There’s still much to be overcome in matters of attitudes. But to give you an idea of the magnitude of the change over the past few decades, consider a handful of random personal recollections. (You probably have some of your own. If so, feel free to share.)
For openers, let’s go all the way back to my grade school days at Eugene Field Elementary in Carthage, Mo. I still remember how proud I was when I achieved the exalted position of Crossing Guard in my eighth-grade year. I got to wear a neat white shoulder strap with a big silver badge and everything. It never occurred to me to wonder why this job was open only to Patrol Boys.
In fact, there was no such thing as a Patrol Girl. Instead, female students had to content themselves with wearing smaller, different-shaped badges and serving as something called Playground Monitors. I don’t remember wondering why. That was just the way things were.
Then there was the Junior ROTC program at Carthage High School — in which I got to march as a member of the Drill Team and the Color Guard, target-shoot on the Rifle Team and serve as a cadet company commander.
Girls, of course, were barred from any of that. Instead, I am ashamed to report, each company was able to vote for one pretty girl who would don a uniform and march with us up front in parades, just for show. Their title was “Sponsor,” for some reason, but “Mascot” would have been more appropriate.
As for those three years I spent in the Army during the early 1960s, I have no memories of any women in any roles, whether as enlisted personnel or officers — never mind combat. There must have been some in personnel offices or whatever, but I don’t recall ever encountering one.
Next: There were a lot of girls at Southwest Missouri State, of course. We referred to them rather condescendingly as “coeds.” And I do have one specific classroom memory that is so embarrassingly offensive that you might think I’m making it up.
On the first day of a freshman history course, there were only a few girls in the class. And during his orientation, the crusty old crewcut professor went to the window, pointed to a building next door and — I swear — delivered himself of the following message, just so we’d know where he stood on the matter of this coeducational studies thing: If he had his way, he said, that building would be turned into a cotton mill, and all the female students would be sent there to work instead of taking up space in his class.
There were a few nervous giggles. But many of us, even then, sat there in shock, wondering how anyone could get away with saying such a thing, academic freedom or no. To my knowledge, though, nobody thought to blow the whistle on that male chauvinist old reprobate.
I don’t know what the male/female ratio is today at SMS (which has more recently put on airs and changed its name to Missouri State). But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the mix is now something like 60 percent female. And in some journalism classes with which I happen to be familiar, it’s more like 90 to 95 percent.
And now, if they choose, they can go risk their lives in war, just like the guys.
That’s an odd kind of progress, perhaps. But it’s progress. To quote that old Virginia Slims cigarette jingle, which itself now sounds a bit insulting in its own way: You’ve come a long way, baby.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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