Women Warriors : How the Press Has Helped - and Hurt - in the Battle for Equality

by Christopher Hanson

The legendary Ernie Pyle wouldn't recognize a lot of things about the contemporary U.S. military, but the biggest shock might well be broads suited up for battle, as he probably would have put it back in World War II.

In the decade between the gulf war and the current campaign against terrorism, women in the U.S. military have commanded warships and air squadrons, piloted fighters and bombers. They have meted death and died themselves alongside male colleagues in the present Central Asia conflict. It's not your father's (or grandfather's) battlefield anymore, but that transformation is no longer attracting much attention from the present-day Pyles out there dodging bullets.

In fact, the woman in uniform who captured the most news coverage recently was not even fighting in Afghanistan. She was fighting instead in the theater of public opinion - against an American military policy she deemed discriminatory. Her allies were U.S. news organizations, starting with USA Today.

In an April 2001 front-page interview with that paper, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the Air Force's highest-ranking female fighter pilot, accused the Pentagon of a unique form of gender bias against U.S. military women in Saudi Arabia. When off the base, they were required to wear Muslim religious robes and headscarves, known in Saudi Arabia as abayas. U.S. military women, many of them pilots like McSally, were also barred from getting behind the wheel of a car. With her public contention that the Pentagon's regulations infringed on servicewomen's rights to equal treatment and religious freedom, the thirty-six-year-old aviator raised a media stir that has continued off and on for the past year.

McSally is the latest in a decade-long khaki line of military women who have sought news coverage as a means of blowing the whistle on gender discrimination in the services. Her case is G-rated compared to some, including the incident that started it all: the infamous 1991 Tailhook convention, in which male aviators assaulted dozens of female colleagues at a Las Vegas gathering of military pilots.

Since the end of the draft in 1973, when the services were only about one percent female, the Pentagon has relied increasingly on women - now about 15 percent of the forces - to fill its personnel needs. As more women have entered the services, demands for equal opportunity have increased.

And through their coverage of outspoken military women, the news media have played a direct and active - if in some cases unintentional - role in this struggle. Ironically, it has proven exceedingly difficult for news outlets to portray women in military service fairly, without distortion, even as journalists expose sexism and discrimination in the ranks.

One likely reason for the difficulty is that many Americans still find the concept of a woman warrior disconcerting, even menacing. The woman making war shatters quintessential categories of gender and family, most fundamentally the notion that men fight and women nurture. There is no ready category in our culture for the woman as professional combat soldier; hence journalists, like many others, struggle to fit the military woman into some familiar and comfortable niche. What often happens then, according to the sociologist Melissa Herbert, is that military women are reduced to one of two derogatory labels. They are either threatening, super-macho "Amazons," whose femininity or sexual orientations are in doubt, or they are frail, unreliable "Butterflies," whose military competence is open to question. It all makes Yossarian's Catch-22 seem like a simple proposition.

In covering female whistle-blowers in the military, news media have frequently reached for the handy "Butterfly" stereotype: the military woman as Damsel in Distress, requiring protection. This tendency has caused not only problems of fairness and accuracy in reporting but serious, practical difficulties for the women who enter a partnership with journalists to expose discrimination. That partnership has become well established over the past decade.

• First to go to the press was Lt. Paula Coughlin. In June 1992 - exactly ten years ago - she told ABC PrimeTime Live, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and The Washington Post that the Navy had failed to investigate vigorously the 1991 Tailhook convention, where she was among those assaulted by male pilots. The Tailhook story had been fairly abstract because no flesh-and-blood victim had come forward to the national media until Coughlin, who described in detail how she was pawed and attacked. She put a human face on the scandal and turned it into a blockbuster story that shook the Navy. In the two-month period before she came forward, there were 176 stories on Tailhook in the Nexis news archive; in the two-month period after she went public, the number shot up to 995.

• Lt. Carey Lohrenz appeared on Dateline NBC in 1996 and embarrassed the Navy by alleging she had been forced out of her position as a carrier fighter pilot because of gender discrimination. Her media exposure contributed to bitter debates in Congress and the Navy over the fair treatment of female aviators.

• Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 bomber pilot, used 60 Minutes as a forum to complain that she was being singled out for severe punishment on an adultery charge because she was a woman. That and other news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, helped make her case that when male officers dallied, the brass usually looked the other way. The publicity derailed the appointment of Gen. Joseph Ralston as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the Post got a leak that he, too, had had an adulterous affair.

• With help from a media adviser, retired Sergeant Major Brenda Hoster convinced The New York Times to air her complaint that the Army's top NCO had assaulted and sexually harassed her. Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney was in line to join an Army panel aimed at curbing sexual harassment. The lengthy front-page Times story on February 4, 1997, magnified by a Sam Donaldson PrimeTime Live version, turned Hoster's accusations into a huge national story. Several women in uniform came forward with similar allegations against McKinney, adding firepower to Hoster's allegations.

The symbiotic relationship between news media and the whistle-blowers has repeatedly yielded coverage that forced the military's hand. The resulting policies have generally been female-friendly, beginning with a jumpstart of the stalled Tailhook investigation. A number of senior naval officers were demoted or took early retirement for not rooting out Tailhook abusers with sufficient vigor. Five years later, Hoster's allegations led to a public and well-covered court martial. McKinney was cleared on eighteen counts of sexual misconduct but he was demoted and forced into retirement as a result of the trial.

Most recently, Lt. Col. McSally's complaint unleashed a barrage of coverage, including a 60 Minutes segment and dozens of newspaper articles, and shared headlines with the Afghanistan campaign. McSally thus forced the Pentagon to confront a paradox it had wanted to fudge: How could the United States take credit for liberating Afghanistan's Muslim women from the burqa while forcing similar garb on American women to appease our Saudi allies? The answer was simple: it couldn't. In January, the Pentagon announced that it was rescinding the abaya orders.

For all the real gains that have resulted from the partnership between the press and military women, this progress has come at a high personal cost to those who spoke out. Coughlin, McKinney's accusers, McSally, and others came forward so that they and other women in uniform could be fully accepted in the military. But in the military mindset the very act of going to the press left them open to being pilloried as unreliable "Butterflies" who could not take care of themselves. Coughlin was ostracized and got hate mail from Navy men, who regarded her as a weak, undependable officer. She eventually resigned her commission in disgust. Several of the active-duty women who testified against McKinney said they would leave the service shortly thereafter, having been attacked as unfit soldiers by McKinney's defenders in and out of court.

After McSally sought a helping hand from the media, even her service evaluations took a nosedive. She was accused of disloyalty and being unprofessional by her commanding officers. In a 60 Minutes interview, she acknowledged that her future in the Air Force was unclear.

These whistle-blower stories posed difficulties of a different sort for the journalists who presented them.

On the surface, many press accounts of female whistle-blowers being discriminated against or ostracized are quite sympathetic to the women. Upon closer analysis, however, many of these same accounts reinforce the very stereotypes the women were fighting against - especially the "Butterfly" notion of military woman as victim. Obviously, the victim label is especially damaging to a member of the armed forces. How can an officer help defend the nation if she cannot even manage to take care of herself? And yet this image of frailty has been a hallmark of reports on military women.

This has been especially true on television prime-time magazine shows, where one might have expected coverage with greater depth and subtlety than typical brief evening news stories. As the media scholar Richard Campbell has pointed out, the TV magazine formula calls for the reporter to intervene on behalf of the story's imperiled protagonist. Indeed, the reporter comes across like TV's The Equalizer, a gallant man who uses his superior strength to protect a woman. In this mode, Sam Donaldson stood up for Coughlin, Morley Safer for Flinn, and so on. Unfortunately, the Equalizer formula is a fount of sexist cliché. The reporters in these segments, generally men, are the chief actors. They investigate and protect. The women are Paulines in Peril, prey to all manner of malevolent forces, although many journalists, both women and men, who have covered the military would say that the typical woman in uniform is quite capable of taking care of herself.

The power of the victim theme has also led journalists to blur key distinctions between cases. Some women have approached the press to expose wrongs, help their sisters in arms and seek justice, even at the expense of their careers or reputations. Coughlin, Hoster, and McSally are all members of that select group. On the other hand, there are those who have used the media primarily to advance their self-interest - Flinn, who wanted to avoid court-martial and keep flying B-52s, and Lohrenz, who was pressing for reinstatement as a carrier pilot.

Yet despite these crucial differences, the coverage has tended to lump the women together as victims of bullying males. In one 1992 ABC segment, Coughlin, in her dress whites, was identified with the label, "Victim of Sexual Abuse," which pretty much sums up what this courageous whistle-blower was reduced to in most other reports as well.

Flinn was similarly portrayed as a victim of a sexist military, despite her acknowledgement that she had disobeyed orders by continuing her relationship with a married man. In a 1997 60 Minutes segment, for instance, Morley Safer as Equalizer declared incredulously, "It's hard to believe that someone of her abilities and her character could go to jail." In a face-to-face with Flinn, Safer backhandedly played up her vulnerability.

Safer: You're a tough woman, yes?

Flinn (in uniform, weeping): Yes.

Safer: You could deal with that [prison]?

Flinn: (voice breaking): I would deal with it . . . . It's not something I really look forward (voice breaks) to facing. . .

Here was the very picture of feminine frailty in uniform, the Victim incarnate. Why wasn't Coughlin labeled more positively as a "Fighter Against Sexual Abuse"? Why wasn't Flinn labeled a "Bomber Pilot Accused of Insubordination and Sexual Misconduct"? Perhaps because "woman as victim" is such a powerful archetype. So powerful, evidently, that it has prevented journalists - many of whom are quite ignorant of military culture to start with - from making the key distinction between the fighter for justice and the delinquent officer fighting for her own skin.

The risk of distortion is considerable not only because of the archetypes that seem to exert a magnetic force on journalists, but also because these whistle-blower exposés tend to draw far more news play than accounts of progress toward gender equality. The exposés have all the alluring elements of tabloid journalism - sex, violence, depravity, and the inevitable fascination with anything that freakishly defies traditional boundaries and expectations - from cloned sheep to mothers who drown their children. The woman warrior falls into this "transnormal" category, even as journalists struggle to cast her as something less sensational.

Success stories and trend pieces outlining gradual improvement simply cannot compete. One such success story, Rosemary Mariner, the Navy's first female squadron commander and a frequent spokesperson for the Navy, was mentioned in 102 news items in the Nexis archive between 1978 and 1998. Another figure deemed a pioneer by the media, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, once the highest-ranking female ever in the Army, was mentioned 158 times. (This was before Kennedy filed her own sexual harassment complaint against a fellow general. She did not go to the press, but a leak launched her news profile into the stratosphere in March 2000.)

In striking contrast, as noted in my 1999 Ph.D. dissertation, Tailhook whistle-blower Coughlin was mentioned over 700 times, McKinney accuser Hoster some 900 times, and Kelly Flinn nearly 3,000 times. It's impossible not to question whether the coverage has painted a distorted picture of women in uniform when the errant and weepy bomber pilot Kelly Flinn makes by far the biggest media splash of the decade.

The public was clearly learning much more about the harassed, victimized, or fragile military woman than about the strong achiever or routine careerist. And this despite indications that military sexual harassment is actually on the decline. As USA Today recently reported, the number of harassment complaints was down to 319 in 2000 from 1,599 in 1993. The Pentagon attributes the trend to sensitivity training and growing acceptance of servicewomen.

This growing acceptance has been evident in air combat. American women have flown combat missions over Iraqi "no fly zones," over Kosovo, and in the current Afghanistan campaign. What reporters once covered as a novelty, they are now treating as routine. When the Navy gave reporters access to combat pilots, including a female code-named "Mumbles," some U.S. news organizations mentioned her only in passing. In two articles, The San Diego Union-Tribune did not even identify her as female.

But when combined with the high-profile attention paid McSally, the routine coverage of women on the firing line raises old concerns about distortion. The McSally case was on the air and in the press dozens of times during the early phases of the Afghanistan conflict. From the coverage, it was easier to learn more about one example of gender discrimination than about gender equality in action as the country went to war.

As America faces a long battle against terrorism, how can news media illuminate women's growing role in the military without distortions and stereotyping?

First, reporters need to recognize that not all military women who go public are created equal. Kelly Flinn, eager to avoid what may be an excessive penalty for a known infraction, was no Paula Coughlin. In covering them both as "Damsels in Distress," journalists miss a crucial element of their stories and distort what's left.

Another part of the solution would be to complement coverage of exposés on gender discrimination with pieces explaining how far women have come in the military. Some print journalists have provided such context.

The TV magazine programs, unfortunately, are not about context. They are about "real life" packaged as drama. Narrative, not nuance, is the key.

Given those limitations, it would be a step forward for TV magazines to switch formulas. Instead of casting female whistle-blowers as distressed damsels, why not cast the deserving ones as Al Pacino in Serpico or Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back? In other words, cast them as protagonists who stand on principle and will risk a great deal to right a wrong or protect a comrade. It would be closer to the mark than The Perils of Pauline.

Lesley Stahl flirted with just such a switch in formula in her January 20, 2002, segment on Lt. Col. McSally. Stressing the officer's prowess in the air, physical toughness, and dedication to principle, Stahl raises the issue of why McSally was willing to risk her career over abayas and back seats when she had such a bright future ahead of her as a pilot with "the right stuff."

"I felt like I was in a unique position as the highest ranking female fighter pilot - kind of a warrior in the warrior's world - to say this has got to go," McSally says. "It was more my obligation than any of the other gals [of lower rank]."

At the same time, unfortunately, Stahl assumes a kind of empathetic Big Sister role and goes to great lengths to get an emotional reaction from McSally. This is more in keeping with traditional TV magazine stereotyping: depict the woman as vulnerable. Stahl displays an abaya and asks McSally to don it. McSally refuses, looking hurt, and says with a slight quaver: "I hope I've worn it for the last time." So Stahl herself puts on the robe and headscarf and is soon covered in black. Only her eyes and nose are visible.

Stahl : You won't even demonstrate it for us because you feel so strongly . . . . This is what you looked like? . . . Does it bother you watching me? . . . Your whole face has changed . . . . It's emotional for you.

McSally (nodding sadly): Yeah.

Stahl plays up the pain and emotion, so that we see a scared, even rattled, Martha McSally, not the unflappable lieutenant colonel, in the most dramatic portion of her report. Still, given the context of a decade's worth of coverage, Stahl provides a relatively sound model.

Another was Ernie Pyle, whose work was respected by the troops and public alike because he understood the hardships of the ordinary mud soldier and depicted him realistically, with few if any flag-waving stereotypes. Today's military reporters would do well to follow Pyle's example in depicting G.I. Jane, understanding her travails, portraying her as she is, resisting the constant pull of outmoded archetypes.

The Changing Press Portrait of GI Jane

The law of unintended consequences was at work when the Defense Department decided in the mid-1970s to help fill its post-draft manpower needs by actively recruiting women. Pentagon planners had hoped to confine women to non-combat jobs. But the policy set off a gender war as military women, reflecting a trend in society at large, pushed for equal opportunity across the board, combating sexual abuse and harassment along the way. As this military gender conflict unfolded, news media found themselves repeatedly changing the way in which they characterized, or stereotyped, the new breed of military woman:


Until the U.S. military operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf in 1990-1991, women in the services were frequently cast as pathfinders breaking gender barriers. A typical piece, "Women in Uniform: Can They Save the Military?" (U.S. News & World Report, June 5, 1978) described how women were filling the post-draft manpower shortfall as sailors, parachute riggers, pilots, Minuteman missile crewmembers. In my 1999 Ph.D. dissertation, I examined some 250 articles published between 1978 and 1998 on women in the military. About half of the 31 articles that appeared between 1978 and 1990 dealt with strides made by women in uniform.

Threat to Military Readiness

In 1990 and 1991, the United States, which had essentially been at peace since the mid-1970s, went to war in Panama and the gulf. Female soldiers were definitely in harm's way so woman at war was no longer an abstraction. All of society's doubts about women in combat rose to the surface -including the old idea that women in war are sexual distractions, misfits, or "weak sisters."

According to the study, around half of the 51 articles that ran in 1990-1991 dealt with women in combat, often focusing on controversies like sex in the ranks. One Newsweek article declared, for instance, that 1,200 military women had been evacuated from the gulf war zone due to pregnancy. But as Linda Bird Francke pointed out in her book Ground Zero, the Pentagon could not confirm the figures and later said pregnancy had not undermined gulf war readiness.

Much coverage focused on military women who left young children behind, with far less attention to fathers who had to do the same. (See, for instance, "Battle Over Moms at War," USA Today, February 12, 1991.) This news emphasis bolstered the stereotypic breakdown of gender roles in war: men fight, women keep domestic life going.

Perhaps most striking was the press preoccupation with two American women captured by the Iraqis - Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy and Army Major Rhonda Cornum. They received far more media attention than did male captives. Indeed, some 480 news accounts dealt with the capture or release of one or both women, according to a Nexis search. This was roughly the same number of references as appeared about two of the U.S. Army's most influential, accessible, and quotable gulf commanders - Lieutenant Generals Gus Pagonis, who handled the crucial logistics front, and Calvin Waller, deputy commander of the entire force. That two relatively low-ranking women prisoners matched them in publicity reflects real unease in the media and American society about women at the front.

Gender War Victims

Shortly after the gulf war came Lt. Paula Coughlin's decision to blow the whistle on the stalled Navy investigation of sexual assault by male aviators at the Tailhook convention. The story broke at a time when news media were displaying a robust appetite for sex scandal. Coughlin's story drew huge news play and inspired a string of other aggrieved military women to tell their tales of mistreatment of male colleagues. Thus was born Military Woman as Gender War Victim, a media stereotype whose drawbacks are discussed in the accompanying article.

Mainstream Warrior?

News coverage of the initial military conflicts of the twenty-first century suggests that a more balanced portrayal of women as mainstream members of the U.S. armed services might finally be emerging. When a Navy plane made a forced landing in China after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter in 2001, for instance, the Chinese held captive a crew including three women. In contrast to the gulf war, reporters did not single out these prisoners for coverage because they were women.

A number of news stories about the Afghanistan campaign have reported that women in warfare is no longer a contentious issue within the military. "Here on the front lines of the war on terrorism, that argument is over," according to a February Newhouse News Service story. "They're Not an Experiment Anymore," declares the headline of a January 11, 2002, USA Today piece.

Still, the issue of motherhood continues to smolder

In a November 2, 2001, Dateline NBC segment, reporter Ann Curry asks a mother of three if she has sleepless nights missing her kids during a combat tour on an aircraft carrier. "Oh, yeah," the Navy electrical technician says wistfully, "[when I] make the mistake of thinking about singing bedtime songs." Curry is not shown asking similar questions of any of fathers on board. The Newhouse piece quotes a female soldier who left a two-year old daughter behind saying, "Yesterday I took a shower and caught myself thinking about her and I just cried and cried." No forlorn fathers are quoted.

In the future, perhaps we'll see coverage of military fathers answering such questions, or the absence of such queries altogether. Either would be preferable to putting the spotlight on weeping Moms in foxholes. - C.H.

Biography-Noteworthy People-1997 People in the News

Lt. Kelly Flinn, first female bomber pilot, was allowed to resign from the Air Force rather than face court martial on charges of disobeying orders, fraternizing with an enlisted officer, and adultery. The charges were criticized by many civilians as unfairly targeting women, while military personnel criticized the Air Force's leniency in allowing her an uncharacterized (i.e., neither honorable nor dishonorable) discharge.