Despatches: America broods over army women on parade

A US army survey found that men and women soldiers view each other with increasing resentment and distrust. John Carlin argues that it raises questions that extend to the civilian world about the limits of what is feasible in the battle for gender equality.
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There is a rule in the US army under which men below the rank of general are prohibited from carrying umbrellas in uniform. But it does not extend to women soldiers. While this might seem on the face of it to represent a rare case of reverse discrimination, and as such a triumph of sorts for women, it goes to the heart of a controversy raging right now about the role of men and women in the military.

A proposal put forward by a female colonel a year ago for the no-umbrella regulation to be lifted for men has been gathering dust in the Pentagon vaults. "To this day, every time it rains, women with umbrellas are harassed by men," said the author of the proposal, Colonel Vickie Longenecker. "It's like, `You're special, you get to carry an umbrella'. It's an irritant."

Male soldiers feel much the same way about the preferential treatment their female counterparts receive on matters of physical fitness, one of numerous new findings that emerged from an internal army survey conducted over 10 months and based on interviews with 35,000 soldiers.

The conclusions of the survey, released last week, amounted to a harsh indictment of the state of gender relations in the army 20 years after the integration of women in the ranks. Sexual coercion of female trainees by their superiors was widespread and sexual harassment was rampant. More insidious was the general finding that men and women soldiers view each other with wariness and distrust, sapping morale and raising questions about the army's battle readiness. According to one set of statistics, while half the men said they believed women in their units were treated with greater leniency and more favouritism, 80 per cent of the women disagreed.

Male drill sergeants, for example, are especially disgruntled, complaining that for fear of junior female soldiers officers wielding the threat of a sexual harassment case they have gone soft in training, diluting the code of discipline on which an effective army depends.

The army brass, moving sharply to introduce corrective measures, has sought to appease male soldiers' resentment by imposing tougher fitness standards for women recruits. They will now be required to do more push- ups and sit-ups than before and run a two mile course faster than previously required.

The women soldiers' concerns are being addressed the way they might be in the civilian workplace. A "human relations action plan" has been drawn up which recommends a week of training for recruits on "ethics and moral values", courses on gender relations, new videos teaching respect between men and women and the issuing of each soldier with "value cards" reminding them of their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, an official commission headed by a former senator has been established to reappraise the question the army has so far chosen not to address: whether men and women should train and fight together at all.

For now, the traditional feminist position occupies the high ground. Few have dared to come out and challenge the conventional equal-opportunities orthodoxies. One who has is Elaine Donnelly, president of the Centre for Military Readiness, who argues that mixing men and women in the army is a recipe for calamitous indiscipline on the field of battle.

"There's what I call this social fiction that men and women are interchangeable, that standards are the same. They're not," said Ms Donnelly, a member of a presidential commission that looked into the role of women in the military in 1992. "And the issue of sexuality, of human nature, is not going to go away, no matter how many sensitivity training sessions you have."

Decrying the tendency to accommodate "feminist zealots" at the expense of the practical realities of war, she said, "The army is not there to advance women's rights; it is not there to defend men's rights. It is there to defend the country."

Ms Donnelly is not against women in a segregated army. She notes with satisfaction, indeed, that women officers have kept pace with men on promotions. But the bigger question to which she draws attention is whether the contemporary American zeal for gender equality in all things might selectively be tempered by greater recognition of the limits that biology ineluctably imposes.

These are, indeed, mixed times for the cause of women in America. On the one hand, there was the news on Monday that Paula Jones' attorney was due to begin discussions with Bill Clinton's lawyers towards a possible settlement of her sexual harassment case against the president. Whatever you think of Ms Jones and Mr Clinton, whether you believe or not her story that he dropped his trousers in front of her in an Arkansas hotel room six years ago, the fact that things have reached this pass marks a victory for women in the evolving power struggle between the sexes.

More open to debate were the consequences of the latest development in the Miss America pageant. Television ratings have been falling in recent years so for this year's event, held on Saturday in Atlantic City, contestants were encouraged to wear bikinis. Not all took up the offer. One who did, Miss Illinois, won.

But the judges, eager to be all things to all persons, said she won not because of her looks but because she had spoken with Diana-like sensitivity on the Aids question and performed a lively rendition of the song, "Don't Rain on My Parade". Which, of course, takes us back to umbrellas.