In the macho culture of the Army in the 1980s, a woman needed to have sharp elbows to survive, especially a woman like Suzanne Watkins who is best described by the adjective “frumpy.” Nevertheless, she not only survived, she made her way by the dint of hard work. She made mistakes, but she refused to let them slow her progress.
I saw many women like Suzanne Watkins when I served on active duty from 1975 to 1988. Some came to the Army well prepared, because they had participated in ROTC programs in college. Others, like Suzanne Watkins, came to the Army straight from civilian life and suffered as a result.
As the father of four daughters, I have had a keen interest in the role of women in our society. I am extremely proud of my girls and have tried to teach each one of them to be a lady, but to never compromise her dreams and to never accept second-class status, when first-class is due.
Women in the Army and in corporate America walk a fine line. If they come on too strong, they’re called “bitches.” If they act too demure, they aren’t taken seriously. And, overlaid on all of this is the pall of sexual tension, especially if they’re attractive.
Despite the problems it has had—notably a number of sexual harassment cases—the Army has done a good job of integrating women into the force, especially when one considers the cultural and social obstacles it had to overcome. For most of the 20th Century, women were excluded from most combat and combat support specialties and were relegated to the clerical and supply fields. Married women could not enlist, and women who became pregnant in the service faced mandatory discharge. That began to change in the late 1970s. And by the early 1980s—when Suzanne Watkins arrived in Panama—the official policy concerning women in the Army was to make it work, despite the male chauvinists who occupied its ranks. Consequently, when the Army deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1990, 8.6 percent of the total force deployed to Saudi Arabia—26,000 soldiers—were women.
Despite the progress of women in the Army, a major barrier to their career advancement and usefulness has remained: women are still excluded from most combat assignments. And since combat is the core mission of the military, service in combat is a major determinant of promotions. Nevertheless, current conflicts have made that distinction somewhat irrelevant. There is no longer a “front” to go to. Women like Jessica Lynch, a unit supply specialist in a convoy vehicle driven by another woman in the 507th Maintenance Company, can be ambushed, injured, and captured.
Thus, it is unfair to put women into the dangers of a combat environment without proper training. It is ridiculous to suggest that they are not in a “combat arm” and, therefore, do not need the same training their male counterparts receive. And, it is unfair to dump women like Suzanne Watkins into the physically demanding environment that typifies most Army installations without proper training.
Nevertheless, women have survived and will survive in the Army. They have transformed the venerable institution over the last three decades, mostly for the good, although there’s still a lot of work to do.