23 July 2006

Is Being a Fighter Pilot Progress for Women?

I am really unsure quite what to make of this. The women over at the (generally terrific) blog Feministing.com have a "Weekly Feminist Reader" post that this week contains a link to this story about a young woman Samantha Weeks who is a jet pilot for the US Air Force. Weeks has just been named the newest member of the Thunderbirds and is only the second woman pilot to be named to the group which performs at air shows and so forth. Seems great, right? Well, I am not entirely sure. At least I'm not sure about the way Feminsting posted the story without comment. Here are a few reasons why.

The first thing I noticed is that the story spent an awful lot of time talking about clothes. (I'll spare you the correspondent's remark about the color of Weeks' roots.) Hence, we learn that although the appointment does not include a salary bump, it "does include a custom-made uniform, complete with one's name embroidered on the chest. Past ensembles have come in fire-engine red and a sleek blue-and-black number. " This "more tailored" attire will replace "regulation olive-green flight suit hangs loosely on [Weeks'] athletic 5-foot-7-inch frame." Terrific! I am sure the uniforms are really cool. But the real question is whether stories about male pilots devote such attention to the uniforms.

The second thing that caught my attention was not mentioned at all in the article or in the post. I wonder whether Weeks actually is allowed to fly in combat. I do not know what the regulations are, but I suspect the answer is "No." So there are real issues of sex equality here that go beyond the appointment of this young woman to this position. Moreover, there is a further question about which I have posted before: does the incorporation of women into the military constitute progress? I am not entirely sure - I can imagine arguments on both sides. Several of my very best female students over the years (e.g., Stacy Allen, Rachel Boylan, Tracy Chavanne, Natalie Lupiani) are or have been in the military. Each of these young women is smart, disciplined, motivated and capable; so why shouldn't they serve in the armed forces? I admire each of them for doing so. But I also would prefer a nation that was significantly less oriented toward the use of military force as a policy instrument. I also definitely wish there were more means of financing college that did not require military service.

Finally, it is crucial to be clear. The Thunderdirds are PR for the military. Period. The description of the entourage that accompanies the group's tours makes clear that this is a significant expense. And it is aimed at two things: (1) creating a positive impression among the public regarding the technological prowess of our weapons and (2) recruiting young people into the Air Force. That seems to me to be a questionable enterprise when we are unwilling, as I also have noted before, to forthrightly acknowledge the costs of military service.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

getting away just slightly from your post - the costs of war (to civilians) are highlighted vividly in an image in the guardian (link below) that accompanies a story about a family hit by a missile while fleeing Lebanon - for some reason it seems to hit harder than other tragic images - the story gives an account of the circmstances, but does not really make things understandable - anyway the image seems to me to give an answer to your question. I don't think women be allowed to serve in the military is a sign of "progress" - though that is really a loaded concept.


24 July, 2006 21:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, women in the united states air force are allowed to fly in combat, and have been since 1993 when Congress lifted the ban on women in combat. There have been numerous female fighter pilots that have flown over Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, etc. Both females on the Air Force Thunderbids have combat time.

13 August, 2006 13:13  

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