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Women in National Service


by Margaret Mead - 1971

If there is explicit recognition of tasks which are appropriate for either sex, tasks appropriate for one sex or the other, and tasks which require the complementary presence of both sexes, this should serve to reduce the kind of polarization over occupation, whether coming from Women's Liberation or from those conservatives who feel strongly that women's place is in the home, or at least at homelike tasks dealing with individuals, teaching, nursing, safeguarding, listening.

National service in any form, voluntary or compulsory, including the more usual form of the draft and the now familiar form of the Peace Corps, arouses anxieties. Young people not yet regarded as either mature or responsible will leave their homes, the supervision of their parents, the constraints imposed by their peers, and be plunged into situations which are variously seen as dan­gerous, frightening, filled with temptation and opportunities for mental and moral corruption. The spectacle of armies of youth marching away recalls the phantasy of the Pied Piper, the image of the Children's Crusade, a final break between young and old, between present and future, the death of all the young or, in reverse, the death of all the old. Patricide and filicide are two sides of the same coin. What will happen to the young, and, if something does happen to them, if they come back changed into single-minded Utopians or monsters of guerilla warfare techniques, what will happen to us? These themes can be seen in all the discussions of the draft, of draft age, of breakdown in the armed forces, of the advisability of the Peace Corps and in the willingness to turn against the Peace Corps and prove it did only harm, or the counterphobic avoidance of Peace Corps scandals after the excessive publicity given to a single post card from an amazed young American in Africa.

The United States—and Britain—have been characterized by excessive and obsessive attitudes towards children's work, by pictures of the horrors of child labor in mines and factories, and the final decision to treat children at least as well as animals, which marked the formation of The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a decade after the formation of its animal predecessor—in England. But once we have flourished our abhorrence of child labor, we then willingly, half-consciously, dreamily permit 500,000 children in the United States to engage in child labor—as the children of migrant laborers whose families could not make a "living wage" without involving their young children under the pitiless broiling sun.

Excessive sentimental idealism has a way of creating its opposite—excessive cynical realism—(the price of everything as opposed to the value of everything), and this swing between polar opposites is very American, perhaps partly be­cause so much of what was American was seen by poor immigrants as the un-welcomed opposite to their poverty-ridden past, white bread in the castle as opposed to black bread in the cottage. So we have swung as a people between a sentimental regard for "our boys"—not men as soldiers who are in other coun­tries—to the callous disregard of the present war, when the draft is there to catch the young idealists who are trying to stop the war or find alternative forms of service, and reflexively, draftees leave town without a flag or bugle to speed them on their way to an unheroic death.

Discussions of national service, voluntary, selective, or compulsory, under­written by federal agencies, international or national, for all use or only for some use, alternative to military service or additional to it, like the discussions of the professional rather than a conscript army can be usefully viewed within this context of extreme ambivalence towards the young. Should national service be compulsory and the military be an option within it? There is an immediate out­cry that this is compulsion and what would we do with those who objected. The reply that there could be a place for conscientious objectors doesn't satisfy them because that is not what they are really talking about. Somehow national service must be not a service that includes the military service once provided by the draft, but instead, the opposite of the draft. But what is the opposite of the draft? Voluntary happy service to one's country in peace and constructiveness in­stead of involuntary unhappy service to one's country in an undeclared, unbelieved in war? But how about pay; the armed services are paid abominably. Well, then, let's have a professional, well-paid army and a national service, poorly paid, involving real dedication (sic) that is badly paid.

These ambivalences, so close to the surface, involving such violent swings in emotion, are about the relationship between young and old, exploiting old and exploited young, or frightening young, fiercer, more single-minded, more ideal­istic than their elders. It is an unstable, explosive climate of opinion, subject to sudden tornadoes of feeling, to outcries against any reform, to the violence of the mother who wrote me at the time of the Conference on the Draft in Chicago, December 4-7, 1966, "Is my son's life to be subject to the flip of a coin?" To the equally impassioned arguments for the lottery, and the discovery that somehow the lottery was not a lottery because the draw was not properly arranged.

When the question of sex is added to the discussion, this whole unstable mix of conflicting emotions is heated to a boiling point. It behooves those who are doing the background thinking for the future to be extremely conscious of the emotions that are stirred by the sight of women in uniform, daughters away from home, women commanding men, women free to make their own decisions about sex. Even in Israel, aflame with patriotic zeal, drafting women had to be tempered to the conservatism of those orthodox groups who could not trust their daughters away from their watchful eyes.

It is reasonably clear that the sentiment for treating women even-handedly is rising throughout the country, from both sides of the argument, from Women's Liberation which advocates the abolition of all protective discrimination now seen as barriers against full participation in society, to angry men who see wom­en as privileged, not subject to the draft, men who must work to accumulate income for the widows whom they will leave behind. So neither universal na­tional service nor selective voluntary service is likely to be feasible without the continuing inclusion of women. The more extensive the service demanded, the more there is a possibility that emotion about the inclusion of women will mount.

Armed Services

Therefore, I believe it will be the better part of prudence to think through very carefully what the conditions might be in a universal national service for both sexes, within which the armed services constitute one option. If this is to be the case, there may well be a com­pensatory effort to differentiate the armed services from civilian services by mak­ing the armed services more masculine, more conspicuously dedicated to the attributed masculine virtues of physical courage, toughness, and capacity to kill righteously, as opposed to the attributed feminine virtues of mercy, caring, and rejection of violence. It is not accidental that the Marines do not accept draftees. Nor is it accidental that the American Armed Services—in contrast to the Euro­pean—were so unwilling to accept women doctors in World War II. Where masculinity is most ambiguous, it is also most easily threatened and most vocif­erously guarded. There may well be a demand that the voluntary armed services, contained by an option within a universal draft, be very male indeed, and that women either be excluded or confined to auxiliary services with a parallel incorporated hierarchical system.

This should be thought through; the experience of those rare occasions when women have been given full military status in permission to kill offensively, as well as defensively, should be evaluated. It is possible that the historic refusal to give women weapons, except very briefly and under exceptional circumstances, may be due not to a rejection of putting the power of death into the hands of those who give life, but rather because women who kill on behalf of the lives of their children are more implacable and less subject to chivalrous rules with which men seek to mute the savagery of warfare. It may be that women would kill too thoroughly and endanger the negotiations and posturings of armies, through truces and prisoner taking, with which nations at war eventually manage uneasy breathing spaces between wars.

If it should be decided that women are to play a very little, if any, part in a volunteer army, there will then be the danger that civilian alternative services will be regarded as feminine. The long hair of many of our young conscientious objectors has been equated with femininity, with the abrogation of male pre­tensions, and this might spread; and as a result, there might be a dichotomy in which civilian services to the old and the young, the sick, the unfortunate, to the ravished land and the young new forests, might all be seen as feminine, and so denigrated. The relegation of any activity to women, however noble in itself, has never had very good results, just as the arrogation of any activity wholly to men has never had good results. The male slaves who nursed the Roman legions were succeeded by Christian widows who nursed the outcastes; each resulted in a distortion of the nursing process which then oscillated through the ages and is continuing to oscillate as questions of status, professionalism, women's role, the place of men as paraprofessionals continue to confuse the issue. The core of nursing is not who does it but how it is done, and the appropriate nurse is one who is willing to care for another human being, regardless of sex, class, race, or character, with his or her hands. Complementarity can be introduced in cases where men are more comfortably cared for by men, or women by women, or men by women; and complementarity within the armed services can similarly be achieved by giving to the services that women perform the same status as, but different style from, those asked of men. Women can be armed defensively and given a wider medical role, men armed offensively and given a wider combat role, and by such arrangements distortions can be avoided.

Civilian Services      

So much for the possibilities of women in the armed services which would form an option within universal na­tional service, and the hazards of three solutions, no women, women given a combat role identical with men, and women included in equal status roles which are complementary to men. When we come to the involvement of women in the necessary civilian services, there is even more need, perhaps, for care about the emotions that will be aroused in the parental generation. After all, in the army women are in uniform—and how happy we have been when we could keep schoolgirls in unbecoming uniforms that denied their springing attractive­ness—and women would be disciplined, and the idea of discipline carries with it the regulation, if not the suppression, of sexual behavior. (We are much less willing to instruct high school boys, seen as subject only to the partial control of their parents and teachers, in matters of sex and prophylaxis than we are the same boys once they are in the armed services.) The army may be relied upon to discipline—in both senses of the word—inappropriate sex behavior. It is, in fact, not so much anxious civilian adults who worry about women in uniform as men who see the problems of temptation compounded, even as their exclusive fitness to wear the uniform of their country is called in question.

But in civilian service the images that are aroused are girls away from home, unchaperoned, mixing with all sorts of people whom it would be inappro­priate for them to marry, likely to get attacked, raped, impregnated, exposed to every sort of moral, physical, and social danger. Throughout the history of civ­ilization there has been steady objection to women living alone, unchaperoned, unprotected by male kin or husbands, without the presence of a large group of other women, or in convents, girls' dormitories, YWCAs, etc. The image of a woman away from home frightens the protectiveness of fathers and arouses the phantasies of men in general. Women should be at home, under somebody's roof, and when men have gone abroad to hunt or fight, they should be quiet. This demand is so old that it may well be traceable to some very early period in evolution, perhaps when any sound made by the women left at home in the camp might have brought on an attack from predators. So the picture of girls at eighteen, lined up, stripped, weighed, examined, within the brutal disregard of human dignity characteristic of the boot camp, and subsequently sent to other parts of the country, to the wild West, or the urban slum, the race-conscious South, or the backwardness of a rural community, hostile to all strangers, is bound to be frightening.

These fears will have to be taken into account and met. They will be disguised in many ways, by fears that women's greater gentleness will be tarnished by such coarse associations, by outraged fathers alarmed at the danger to their daughters, and by general objections to any form of compulsion for wom­en. (This objection is still embodied in the New York regulation that permits a juror to claim exemption "as a woman.") If it were strong enough, it might well wreck plans either for extensive publicly funded types of national service, extensions of programs like VISTA, or for universal national service.

I suggest that some of these complications can be anticipated by explicit de­signs for one sex corps, for coeducational corps (on the model of the now spread­ing acceptance of coeducational dormitories), and for corps of married young people. By explicit recognition that all of these options would be provided for, the program would be saying that the difficulties and dangers were all recog­nized and treated. No father need send his daughter into unchaperoned mixed company, and the explicit recognition of marriage—as one of the circumstances of the lives of young people eighteen years and over—would be reassuring. Co­educational dormitories, when they are optional and when one-sex dormitories are also provided, are obtaining unexpectedly wide support on hitherto con­servative campuses, with the customary American flip over of a taboo.

If there is explicit recognition of tasks which are appropriate for either sex, tasks appropriate for one sex or the other, and tasks which require the comple­mentary presence of both sexes, this should serve to reduce the kind of polariza­tion over occupation, whether coming from Women's Liberation or from those conservatives who feel strongly that women's place is in the home, or at least at homelike tasks dealing with individuals, teaching, nursing, safeguarding, listen­ing.

The conference held under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation on March 4-5, 1971, was notable in absolutely ignoring the whole question of wom­en in its entire agenda.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 1, 1971, p. 59-63
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1598, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 4:04:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Margaret Mead
    American Museum of Natural History, New York
    Dr. Margaret Mead, curator emeritus of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, co-authored with James Baldwin A Rap on Race, recently published by Lippincott.
 
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