Argument

President Trump Would Be a Disaster for Women in the Military

President Trump Would Be a Disaster for Women in the Military

The culture of the U.S. military fundamentally represents who we are as a people and what we value as a nation. Sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States, the men and women of the armed services are often the most visible representatives of American ideals when deployed around the globe. Our country was built, in part, on the principle of civilian control of the military — starting with the commander in chief. There are many reasons why this upcoming election is a tipping point. The fates of key U.S. institutions, like the Supreme Court, hang in the balance. This is especially true for the U.S. military.

On Nov. 8, whether they realize it or not, Americans will vote to either continue the expansion of the roles of women and other minorities in the military or pave the way for reactionary policies that will roll back historic gains and limit opportunities. Only one choice will both meet our security needs and live up to our national ideas about equal opportunity and fairness. And though it is increasingly unlikely that the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, will win the election, his public derogatory comments about women have undermined the recent strides made by the military’s civilian leadership to increase opportunities and eliminate barriers to service. The damage has already been done.

During the Obama administration, our nation realized an unprecedented increase in opportunities for military women based on merit. Over the past two years, the Department of Defense eliminated the archaic ground combat exclusion policy, established and validated gender-neutral, task-based occupational performance standards for military jobs, and opened more than 220,000 positions to women in formerly all-male units. To their credit, the civilian leaders in the Defense Department now fully recognize that the male recruiting pool is insufficient to sustain the future all-volunteer force. They also understand that a military with a greater depth of perspectives and life experiences leads to improved problem-solving and risk management — critical skills for those who safeguard our freedoms. As a result, the military is able to forge stronger and more capable teams to address our national security concerns. Unfortunately, over the course of his political campaign, the specter of Donald Trump as commander in chief has put all this at risk.

Despite so much recent progress to level the playing field for servicewomen, Trump’s negative comments about women, which have included remarks about military women, have reignited a debate about the roles of women in ground combat jobs and units that should have ended when the secretary of defense rescinded the combat exclusion policy in December 2015. Trump’s own admission of his history of groping and objectifying women are completely contrary the core values of the military, and make him uniquely unqualified to lead our nation’s finest young men and women. Considering Mr. Trump’s countless scandals, irresponsible remarks, insults, and bragging about making unwanted sexual advances, it is concerning that he still maintains the support of a vast number of military men. While Trump is trailing the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in most national polls, his approval rating among military men remains high and may be increasing. In fact, despite the recent scandal in which Trump was revealed to brag about his sexual assault exploits, a recent Military Times poll shows that more than 40 percent of military voters endorse Trump — and that this support is strongest among male enlisted members who comprise the backbone of the force.

This is not surprising at face value given that many in the military are attracted to conservative values of security, social order, conformity, and tradition, and Trump’s authoritarian nature attracts those who value obedience. But it is disturbing because Trump’s consistently negative comments about women clash directly with the military’s policies related to equal opportunity, harassment, and discrimination. The groundswell of support for Trump in the military indicates significant dissatisfaction by servicemen in the increasing roles women are being allowed to play. This is dangerous for unit cohesion.

This phenomenon is ironic because the military is supposed to be held to a higher standard of conduct and behavior. It is a rules-based organization that prides itself on defending the liberties and physical security of the American people. What does it say about military culture and its views on women that a large number of male service members support a prospective commander in chief whose actions would be in violation of many of the regulations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice regarding basic human decency that they themselves are duty-bound to uphold?

At a recent town hall, Trump publicly expressed that he believes combat integration to be the result of politically correct social engineering in the military. Trump has often made derogatory remarks about women, referring to them as “disgusting animals,” “pigs,” and “dogs.” On numerous occasions, he has public conversations in which women, including his own daughter, were referred to as “pieces of ass.” The logical extension of Trump’s message to men, in and out of the military, is that women should not be valued for their intellect, courage, or ability to get a job done, but rather for their physical attributes. This is damaging to all women, but particularly those in male-dominated cultures like the military. Trump’s remarks give voice to the sexists who seek to maintain their dominance and limit the advancement of women. Furthermore, Trump’s words and actions broadcast a clear message to military men that women don’t belong in “manly roles” and that it is acceptable to demean, grope, and insult them.

In 2013, when commenting on the issue of military sexual assault, Trump tweeted “What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Since then, he has vigorously defended the tweet several times in the media, insinuating that sexual assault is the logical outcome of men and women working together. Yet even after being presented with factual data about sexual assault in the military, including the fact that over half of all reported assaults involve male service members as the victims, he showed no sign of backing down. And his support ratings in the military only fell among servicewomen, not among their male counterparts, indicating deep divisions in the fabric of the force regarding gender relations.

Disturbingly, the Trump team relies upon sexual assault as the lens with which to view servicewomen, which the conservative right then uses to justify why women don’t belong. The statistics clearly demonstrate that sexual assault is not a women’s issue, but a leadership issue which affects both men and women in the military. Yet Trump and his supporters continue to rely upon victimhood as the defining characteristic of servicewomen, who, in reality, continue to be strong, bold, and courageous, even if they have experienced sexual assault. This is an insult to military women and opens the door for women to be simultaneously viewed as both a threat and less capable.

Trump supporters lament the potential for a future Clinton administration as a continuation of the Obama administration’s policies, but a Clinton victory would cement the recent gains made by military women and the LGBT communities. Moreover, having a woman as commander in chief will be a healthy — albeit potentially uncomfortable — paradigm shift for a mostly all-male cohort of senior military leaders as they contend with providing their best military advice. Yet even with a female commander in chief, the groundswell of support by men in the military for a well-known perpetrator of sexual harassment and assault indicates that there is, at worst, a deep-seated resentment of women in the military and, at best, a complete lack of appreciation for how such comments and actions negatively impact servicewomen. Considering the well-known opposition to women in new roles in the military, this will be difficult for even a woman president to fix.

At a minimum, the damaging Trump discourse about women and the presumptive support of his actions by military followers will require the new administration to lead a concerted effort to end gender bias in the military and hold those who fail to abide by current policies fully accountable. As demonstrated by the fight against segregation and the battle to allow homosexuals to openly serve in the military, sometimes the military must be forced from the outside, kicking and screaming, to implement change. Our military, for its many virtues, still struggles with issues of gender bias — and unconscious bias in general. The prospect of a first female commander in chief has already propelled these issues to the forefront of our national salience and has spurred meaningful and productive conversations about the roles of women in our military and our society. But clearly, much work remains to reverse negative perceptions by servicemen about women.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the new president will have to contend with the populist, nativist, and sexist attitudes that Trump has riled up among his followers — to include the 40 percent of military members who have stated they intend to vote for him. The sustained popularity of a candidate who has a documented history of denigrating and assaulting women and believes women do not belong in ground combat roles should be a cause of shame for the nation.  If the military is indeed a reflection of our nation’s values, servicewomen have great cause for concern in the future.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration