The only war I fought was the war to integrate women into the military.
I was the first female officer that most of my subordinates had ever seen. They knew I'd just graduated from college and that I'd grown up in a rural Mississippi town. They had me pegged as a naive helpless southern belle. I was assigned to report to a civil servant who hated women in the military and who thought it was impossible for an officer to be competent without prior enlisted time. I was screwed on both counts.
I know that my boss believed these things because he actually said so at staff meetings, in front of the men I outranked. Other gems included:
- "There's only one reason a woman would ever join the military—because she's [gay] or because she's a [promiscuous woman.]"
- "The colonel is making me lie about the lieutenant on her performance report. I have to say she's good."
- "This [software] code is brilliant. I don't believe the lieutenant wrote it."
- "I feel sorry for the lieutenant when she marries. No man worth having would ever want her."
Most of the time, I just sucked it up. But that last one got to me. I rose from my end of the table and walked out of the room, with the civil servant yelling, "Beth, get back in here." Yeah, he was using my first name—a deliberate sign of blatant disrespect.
I stood in the center of the hallway, visible to my staff, obviously being insubordinate, trying to decide what to do, close to falling apart and knowing that would set women-in-the-military back. The division's Chief Master Sergeant (E9) approached me and asked me what was wrong. I just stared at him, unable to speak. Then he heard what my boss was screaming at me. Chief turned and walked into the conference room. It became quiet. He said softly, "Everyone leave except [boss]". My staff filed out in silence. The door slammed shut.
I never had trouble from my boss again.
At his final enlistment ceremony, Chief asked me to swear him in. On the day he retired from the military, he saluted me last. Both were deliberate signs of extreme respect.
27 years later, Chief has contacted me on FB. Before becoming "friends", he wanted to make sure it was okay with my husband. (And let me tell you, I have married a man worth having.) Instead of Lieutenant and Chief, we're Beth and Jim now. I'm one of the few folks he's in contact with from that time. I think it's because I'm one of the "guys" worth knowing. (Back at you, Jim.)
I tell my daughters these stories, and they think it is so amazing how "kick ass" I had to be—because that is really not me now. My daughters shake their heads in wonder, as if I was living in a fairy tale. No one has ever made them feel less because they are female. No one has suggested that there are boundaries to what they can achieve because they have an extra X chromosome.
I did it for my daughters and for your daughters and for any child who is ever judged for factors beyond their control. And I couldn't have done it without men like Chief.