Last year I described attending a talk with Justice Ginsburg and had the distinct honor to meet her and discuss the role of the court in leading us out of gridlock. Listening to her describe the challenges of women in the 1950s through the 1970s was to remember a time when adults around me openly talked about differences in the sexes in ways we now see as blatant discrimination.
Women were better at raising children. Women that worked were somehow abandoning their children. If a women had to work, there had to be something wrong with their husband’s ability to provide for his family. Women were not good at leadership. Women had physical limitations.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the valuable contribution Sheryl Sandberg and others are making toward putting a coffin nail in these old arguments. But there is one area where society, predominantly men, still tell women what they can and cannot do based on physical difference. Earlier this week I sent out an intemperate Tweet about a New York Times sports piece regarding Brittney Griner of the Baylor that screamed sexism to me.
But rather than argue the merits of Ms. Griner’s talent in a hypothetical NBA game, let us examine a far more demanding physical and mental barrier that is about to fall. A change that will rip the heart out of this last bastion of discrimination against women – that the general stereotype that men are stronger than women has any relevance to the performance of individual women.
Women officers, many of them graduates of the US Naval Academy, are attempting to pass the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course (IOC). The NBA is a joke compared to the IOC, let alone actual combat. When the first woman passes the IOC the last vestige of justification for gender discrimination will be gone.
I was lucky enough as a child and teenager to know and work with a few World War II combat veterans. In college I worked next to a Marine sergeant with two tours of duty in Vietnam. Next week I will hunt turkeys with a triple combat veteran Army sergeant from our more recent wars.
These vets are all about one thing – merit. Can you do the job or not? Most of them probably would not support women in combat in the abstract. But if they get an order they obey and move on. That is particularly the case if they can connect the order to objective evidence such as women passing the IOC.
There are many “elite” units in the US military: the SEALs, Air Force Pararescue, Army Special Forces and Rangers, and others. But the Marine Corp regards all of its infantry, armor, and air units as elite. They train to the highest standards across the corps and their officers to the highest of the high.
I have no doubt that in the coming mixed infantry units men will predominant. The stereotype has some validity. But let us remember Audie Murphy – one of the most decorated combat infantry officers of World War II. He weighed somewhere between 110 and 145 lbs and was 5’5″ to 5’7″ during his military service.
That frame hauled gear and equipment approaching his own weight across North Africa, Italy, and Northwest Europe. Ultimately in combat it is not just the physical frame but the heart within it that drives physical performance.
The point is some percentage of women will pass the IOC. Once they do, the ceiling is broken. The Marine Corp validation of women on the merits for combat command will encourage more women to apply for IOC. At that point whatever the natural ceiling is for women will rise or fall on the merits.
There will always be a place for gender based sports distinctions and competitions to allow women and men to test themselves across the general population. But, children in general, and young women in particular, get far too much from too many about what they cannot achieve. Ms. Griner should tryout for the NBA or not just as Annika Sorenstam made her decision without regard to the voices of discrimination.
Since when is it American to encourage citizens not to try because the mountain is too high?