Strong women and the military

My typical morning news routine is listening to NPR’s Morning Edition while catching up on Twitter from the night before – which can be a hilariously jarring experience. Take the news cycle about removing the no-combat rule for women in the U.S. military, in which dozens of reporters uncritically repeated various military units’ contention that women were not physically strong enough for their combat positions.

I was listening to one such story when I read a tweet from Sarah Robles, the Olympic weightlifter. She often tweets things like:

I’ll bet most of Seal Team 6 can’t front squat 363 lbs. Somehow, they assassinated Osama Bin Laden anyway (maybe with the help of, I don’t know, guns and helicopters?).

Or take this one, recently I had the pleasure of watching a strong woman circus act at the Kinetic Arts Center in which the performer climbed – no, rocketed – up a 25 foot long rope, hand-over-hand (look, no feet, ma!), while smiling and holding a girlish pinup pose. She then proceeded to demonstrate vaccuuming and other housewifely activities using an entire adult man as a prop.

And then today I read about Carla Esparza, a 5-foot-1 mixed martial arts champion who won the Invicta Fighting Championships in the “Straw-weight” division. When she’s not competing, she usually trains with men – and beats the crap out of them.

But those are Olympic athletes, circus performers, and martial arts champions – women so rare we can ignore them, right? Then how about my own college weightlifting experience, where I regularly leg pressed twice the weight that my male classmates used? I only ever saw one person at that gym leg press more than I did, and he won the local race to the top of a nearby mountain the following year. As anyone who has ever met me will know, I’m hardly an athlete, but when it comes to physical strength, I have some genetic advantages over many men.

Sarah Robles

Sure, women are, on average, not as strong as men. But strength follows a bell-curve distribution in both sexes, and for all but the most incredibly elite steroid-fueled few men, you can find women who are just as strong. Part of our misconceptions about women’s physical strength is that literal strong women sometimes don’t look like our society’s current stereotypes of “fit women.” If you saw Sarah Robles walking down the street, you’d probably peg her as a couch potato, never knowing that she could bench press the athletic-looking guy walking past her.

But military service isn’t about looks, it’s about ability to get the job done (or it should be). Ironically, the military is already having to turn down more than 75% of applicants – because the (mostly male) recruits of today aren’t fit enough to pass the basic physical fitness tests after a lifetime of too many video games and not enough running around outside.

If this is the competition, women don’t need to be Olympic athletes or martial arts champions to serve in all military combat positions. They just need to train, be determined, and not be kept out by the old boys’ club.

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