By Adm. Michelle Howard
Vice Chief of Naval Operations
Shipmates, I recently had an opportunity to speak at the Royal United Services Institute in London in honor of International Women’s Day. As it is also Women’s History Month, I wanted to share my comments with all of you.
I thought it would be appropriate to open with discussion of the celebrated British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Among his many distinctions and accomplishments, he is referred to as a “proto-feminist” for his advocacy of equal rights between men and women. In 1865 he was elected to Parliament, where he served only one term – perhaps an indication of the perils of a progressive platform.
In the controversial work he published a year after leaving office, “The Subjection of Women” he wrote, “…The principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong in itself. [It is] one of the chief hindrances to human improvement…It ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality…”
When his work was released one hundred and forty-six years ago, women in several countries were already challenging the social relations. In the United States, in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of the women’s equality movement. In 1890, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote. By 1908, the same year 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights. In the military, the United States Navy introduced its first full-time female members as part of the Nursing Corps.
In 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared National Women’s Day on February 28. International Women’s Day, observed annually on March 8th, developed out of that proud tradition. The first International Women’s Day recognized by multiple countries, in 1911, predated women’s suffrage in almost every sovereign nation. International Women’s Day has been recognized ever since.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Make It Happen.” Making it happen is a great lens to consider the role of women in defense, diplomacy and security. But not all countries are at the same place with regard to gender integration. In the U.S., we have been working at integrating our Armed forces for over a century now. Those first few women in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps paved the way for our fore-mothers who participated as Reservists in the First and Second World Wars. Women became full-time active military members after World War Two. The women of the two global wars are foundational examples for those of us serving in this country when the Combat Exclusion Law was lifted in 1993, allowing women to fly combat aircraft and serve at sea in combat ships. We pay them tribute now as we work towards integrating all of our military units.
We celebrate the idea that women and men should share the burden of citizenship on the battlefield as well as have equal rights to vote, to run for public office, to shape the direction and laws of our countries. We are afforded the opportunity to make our visions happen and our voices heard with matched enthusiasm. We are granted uniform expectations. Equality and civic engagement are germane to our role and entitlement as citizens.
However, equality and gender integration are areas where numbers and percentages matter. Sheer numbers of women can mean all the difference between a culture of acceptance or an environment of prejudice. The magnitude and impact of what you can “make happen” becomes mightily constrained if your voice is lost because it is the sole feminine sound in the office, in the government or in leadership.
Once you attain a certain size of cohort, you reach a point where challenges diminish. Some refer to this threshold of presence as critical mass. Once you reach this level, issues like tokenism and stereotypes, that are filters for communication and understanding, start to fall away. There are enough women to build shared and common experiences with men. Both sexes become accustomed to working as a team and equally depending upon each other. Our natural contexts make significant differences in how women can contribute to security in their communities or defense. What remains constant is that women are capable of greatness. Women have the same obligations to employ their talents for the good of mankind.
We see this borne out. There are some well-established, integrated military communities, like Norway’s, while there are others with early and slight exposures to women’s presence such as Afghanistan. Last August, Major General Kristin Lund from Norway, made it happen. She became the first woman to serve as a Force Commander in a United Nations Peacekeeping Operation when she assumed command of the Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.
General Kristin Lund has more than 34 years of military experience. Her first deployment was to Lebanon in 1986 as a transport officer. She deployed to the Middle East in the First Gulf War. During a deployment to the Balkans in 1992-1993 she felt she gained insight into leading, especially while experiencing the violence inherent in war zones. She explained that as a leader “you have to play like an orchestra” to coordinate the complicated logistics for success.
She points out that in many security situations, being female is actually an advantage. In July of last year she said, “From my recent deployment in Afghanistan, I had access to 100 percent of the population, not only 50 percent.”
In 2009, General Lund became Norway’s first female general. Her career of making it happen is a great example for all peacekeeping forces.
Indeed, in the fifteen years since the United Nations implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the UN has documented lists of reasons that it is vital to have female peacekeepers. They empower women in the host community, they help make the peacekeeping force approachable to women, they are able to interview survivors of gender-based violence, they mentor female cadets at police and military academies, and as Major General Lund stated, they are able to interact with women in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men.
Some countries with gender-segregated cultures are beginning to realize the benefits to gender integration. In 1988, Colonel Latifa Nabizada was Afghanistan’s first female pilot in the Afghan National Army Air Corps. She and her sister decided that they wanted to be pilots. Despite their initial shock, the girls’ parents were supportive, which was vital for their success at a time when women in Afghanistan didn’t even work outside the home.
The women were accepted to the Afghan military academy in 1989. The two “made it happen” despite having stones thrown at them while they were at school, facing limitations in what missions they were permitted to fly upon graduation, and finally being grounded and fleeing to Pakistan during the Taliban’s reign. As soon as they were able, the sisters returned to Kabul to resume their duties.
In 2006, Colonel Nabizada started a family with the birth of her daughter, Malalai. Within months, Latifa was back in the helicopter. There were no childcare options for her, so she brought her daughter with her. She explained, “Unfortunately, there was nobody to take care of my daughter at home and there is no kindergarten in the military. So most of the time I took Malalai with me in the helicopter. She has grown up in a helicopter – sometimes I think she’s not my daughter, but the helicopter’s daughter!”
Now Malalai goes to school during the day, but Latifa has asked the military to establish a kindergarten to assist other women in the military with children. Time in the helicopter seems to have made an impression on Malalai, she says she wants to be a pilot like her mother.
Colonel Nabizada is an impressive example of a woman in defense who “made it happen” despite being a sole voice. She serves as an outstanding case of the tenacity and determination with which women have pursued a role in the defense and stability of their own communities. She exemplifies the demand for inclusion and respect that is common to the fight for gender equality.
Major General Lund and Colonel Nabizada, as well as the countless women sister in arms, represent the talent and passion that women bring to any endeavor when they are afforded an opportunity to contribute. The pursuit of peace and security are too important to allow for the waste of human talent because of prejudice and discrimination.
The 146 years since John Stuart Mill’s words have delivered progress for all humanity, as many cultures move towards greater equality and inclusion. We have a responsibility to continue promoting this development. We have to help lift up ourselves, and our partners. We all must see that entire communities benefit when all citizens can shape the world, and when all perspectives are considered. We have to continue to clear Mill’s “hindrances” to human improvement and continue to reach for equality and inclusiveness in all rights.
- Mill, J.S. 1869 The Subjection of Women