Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced an end to the ban on women in combat positions that had been in place since 1994. While a lot of people are supportive of the decision, more than a few have spoken up to express concerns, such as that women in combat will affect morale or that their presence will inhibit the men from dealing with things like hygiene and pooping in ways that are necessary when on the front lines. (Yes, this was the topic of an actual op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.) I don’t really want to talk about this, though, mainly because I have no freaking clue what it’s like to fight in a war. There are women who have actually served in wars who are writing and talking about these things, and so I defer to their expertise in this matter.
What I want to talk about is the controversy surrounding the differences in physical fitness standards that come up every time the question of women in the military surfaces in the public discourse. The various branches of the military have physical fitness tests that are scaled and scored according to gender and age, and for the most part, the standards that need to be reached by the women are much lower than the standards for the men. (The only exception seems to be sit-ups under the older tests.) A lot of the people who are against women in combat make the point that if they are going to be out in the middle of a mission, they want to know that they can count on everyone who is part of the team to pull their weight, because if they cannot, they put the entire group at risk. A totally legitimate concern, if you ask me.
The proponents of gender-scaled fitness standards point to the fact that women, on average, tend to be shorter than the average man. We tend to have less upper-body strength. Our hormonal cocktail doesn’t let us put on the kind of muscle men do. It’s aggravating as hell but it’s how things are. By reducing the standards for women, you open the doors to allow more women to serve. I get this as well.
I was curious to know more about the differing standards, so I looked up the ones used for the the old Army Physical Fitness Test and was rather surprised by the difference between the passing grade for men as compared to women. Take the two-mile run. A woman who is my age (33) has to run two miles in 21:42, while a man my age would have to run it in 17:42. That’s a gap of four minutes, or two minutes per mile, on a fitness test that isn’t even all that dependent on muscle mass. I would have to do 15 push-ups, while my male counterpart would have to do 36. Again, this is my totally non-military, no-clue-at-all perspective but…don’t those standards seem kind of far apart?
I guess my first instinct is to ask if it’s really necessary to have such a big difference between the physical performance required of men and women. I understand why it was put in place, but I can’t help but think that with proper training and nutrition, many women would be able to perform at a higher standard of physical fitness.
And it looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this, as the U.S. Marine Corps recently started changing the requirements for women:
Additionally, men have been required to do pull-ups while women, viewed institutionally as having less inherent upper-body strength, have been required to perform what’s called the flexed-arm hang, hoisting themselves over the pull-up bar and holding the position for up to 70 seconds. Marines are rated based on their overall performance on each section of the test, with 300 making a perfect score.
During the coming year, as the service adjusts to the change, female Marines will have the option of doing pull-ups or the flexed-arm hang during their PFT, according to Amos’ message. But come 2014, women will be required to do at least three pull-ups to pass the PFT, with eight needed for a perfect score on that portion of the test.
The change will also extend to fitness plans, which will now be required to include specific pull-up training (which trainers say will increase the likelihood that women will be able to actually do pull-ups, instead of vague all-around fitness plans). Women may not have the ability to be as strong and as fast as the strongest men, but give us quality training, good food and a culture that prizes physical strength in women instead of treats it like some kind of scourge to be stamped out, and I bet most of us would be a lot stronger and a lot faster than we are.
I recognize that this is oversimplified, and that there are a lot of other things at play when it comes to evaluating the standards of fitness used in the military, such as the fact that it plays a big role in career advancement. I also want to reiterate that I know very, very little about this, and I am open to hearing why I am wrong. But what I don’t really want to hear is why women should not be allowed in the military and I don’t want to hear dumb sexist shit. If you post a joke about the women’s place in the military being in the mess kitchen, I will delete that shit before your finger even clicks “Submit.”