Women in the Army: It’s No Alternate History

Today is the release day for Silver Stars, the sequel to Front Lines, Michael Grant’s alternate history where women served in World War II. I’ve already taken this series to task for erasing the fact that some three million women did serve in World War II*, a fact which Grant doesn’t mention even in the author’s note. (It’s true that American women didn’t serve in combat roles during World War II, but Grant himself never bothers to make this distinction.)

But as I research the roles of American women in the Army, the entire premise of Front Lines seems more and more implausible. The basic premise that the Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that the draft applied to women is, of course, utterly outlandish, but setting that aside, the even more outlandish part is how the army—and society as a whole—reacts. Women are simply allowed into the Army in all roles and treated the same as male soldiers with no real pushback. In other words, in Grant’s view, the law was the only thing standing in women’s way; aside from a few characters with sexist views, unwritten customs and beliefs don’t play any role.

Front Lines therefore takes place in a world of Schrödinger’s sexism: It simultaneously exists and does not exist. Individual people can be sexist and laws can be sexist, but they never add up to a larger gendered social environment. The female draftees aren’t preferentially given desk jobs or assigned to permanent kitchen police or even separated into all-female units. There are no ill-fitting women’s uniforms that were tailored to men’s measurements, no rumors about pregnant female soldiers being sent home en masse, and no press conferences where the journalists only want to ask about the color of their underwear, all of which happened in real life**.

“What if a Supreme Court decision had made women eligible for enlistment in the military?” is a fundamentally wrongheaded question, because they did enlist and we know what happened. Departures from history might make for a better story and they might seem empowering, but—especially when written by a man—they risk presenting an overly simplistic picture that overlooks the subtle but important pressures and narratives that surround women in real life.

To understand these pressures, we need to cover a little history.

Despite the draft and the huge surge of volunteers following Pearl Harbor, by the end of 1942 the US Army was facing a severe manpower shortage. This was not a lack of people who could fire guns, but a lack of people who could do paperwork. As the Army grew, the amount of paperwork increased exponentially, threatening to swamp the War Department so thoroughly that they would have no soldiers left to deploy in the field. At some point it occurred to someone that it didn’t make any sense to train male factory workers to type while at the same time training female typists to work in factories, and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was born***.

The Women’s Army Corps and its noncombat role were thus a product of a combination of gendered stereotypes and practical necessity. The noncombat restriction was rooted in paternalistic ideas of protecting women and in the jealous need to prevent women from “showing up” male soldiers (similarly, WACs were forbidden from commanding men). But at the same time, most highly skilled secretaries were female, and a single WAC could replace two men in clerical roles, making them highly prized. (The backlash from male soldiers who feared being displaced from a safe desk job to the front lines caused a vicious slander campaign, just one more of the many obstacles women in the US Army faced during World War II that I doubt Grant will address.)

Front Lines differs from reality in the presence of the draft, but there’s no reason to believe a draft would have changed wider views about the roles of women; indeed, the idea of a women’s draft was bounced around with the specific goal of filling much-needed noncombat roles. Two other examples are instructive. The British draft did include women, but they were nevertheless restricted to noncombat roles. Meanwhile, black units in the US Army were allowed in combat, but they were still often relegated to unglamorous noncombat roles out of distrust and the desire to prevent them from achieving glory. So we see that marginalized groups are pushed away from combat and into less respected roles, regardless of their precise legal status.

After World War II, women in the US Army continued to face obstacles, including a witch hunt against lesbians in the late 1940s. Despite their near-flawless record, the battle for full equality dragged on for decades. All combat roles were finally opened to women only in December 2015, long after the combat prohibition had come to seem like a ludicrous anachronism to everyone outside the Department of Defense.

Clearly, far more than a single Supreme Court ruling stood between American women and combat in World War II. There were layers upon layers of legal structures, social conventions, and widely held beliefs, each of which needed to be examined and dismantled in turn before women could truly be treated as equals.

At this point you may be wondering why any of this matters. Front Lines is alternate history, after all, so it’s not beholden to stick to the facts. There are two reasons. First, the perception that getting women into combat is that easy erases the decades of hard work women put in to earn that right. In Grant’s version, nine men bestow the right to enlist on women, in keeping with the common but false narrative that women that women had their rights granted by magnanimous men. In reality, the legislation was spearheaded by two women, Eleanor Roosevelt and Representative Edith Rogers, against strong opposition by men.

Second, framing the law as the sole obstacle without accounting for other social structures feeds the narrative that sexism ended when women achieved legal equality—sure, there are individual bad apples, but nothing society-wide affecting women as a whole. My objection is not that I don’t want stories where women fight, but that I don’t want such stories at the cost of overlooking the real-life obstacles women face.

Alternate history may not be true, but it nevertheless carries the wait of historical realism; Front Lines is often classified as historical fiction, and the marketing takes pains to emphasize the book’s historicity. So Grant carries a responsibility to understand and accurately portray the gendered environment that is the central focus of the story. In that light, his story of American women’s effortless induction into the army isn’t very empowering at all. It’s just one more case of a man who doesn’t understand what women are up against.

*Other annoyances: All the characters have names like Strand and Jedron; there’s a snippy aside halfway in aimed at anyone wondering why a book called Front Lines has gone for 300 pages without reaching the front lines; the giant star on the cover of Silver Stars is not silver.

**Please correct me if anything I mentioned is brought up in Silver Stars or if my memory of Front Lines is faulty.

***Actually the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was born, to be transformed into the Women’s Army Corps a year later, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve referred to it as the WAC throughout.

Images: Silver Stars by Michael Grant; cartoon found in The Women’s Army Corps by Mattie Treadwell; WAC recruitment poster found on Pinterest; ATS advertisement found on Pinterest; Army Ranger Kristen Griest from Business Insider.

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