The XX Factor

If Women Can’t Pass the Military’s Tests, Why Fear Letting Them Try?

Luke Leveque pins the submarine officer warfare device on his wife, Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque. Leveque is one of three sailors to become the first female unrestricted line officers to qualify in submarines.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Navy via Getty Images.

Insulting the hard work and skills of our female service members is a grand GOP tradition and apparently one that won’t be abandoned simply because the party’s most recent presidential offering took an 18-point beating from female voters. The latest insult comes from Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, who does not like the idea of women serving in the infantry, because studies—not cited by him or even described at length so that they can be dug up—show that women are weak. As he said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show:

To have women serving in infantry, though, could impair the mission-essential tasks of those units. And that’s been proven in study after study, it’s nature, upper body strength, and physical movements, and speed, and endurance, and so forth.

As Think Progress notes, Cotton is speaking as if the military has no other standards for physical fitness outside of pulling down your pants. The truth is that the military does employ standardized physical fitness standards, and women meet them all the time: 

Cotton appears to assume that allowing women to serve in the infantry would necessitate a double standard in physical testing for male and female soldiers, but that’s not so. A Marine pilot program training women as combat officers subjects them to the same grueling physical training as their male classmates. Though the two women in that program didn’t pass (along with 26 of the 107 men enrolled in the course), many women are more than physically capable of performing in combat roles. Indeed, a survey of several NATO allies that allowed women in “frontline roles” in Afghanistan found that female officers caused “no significant problems,” and actually performed better than their male counterparts in intelligence-gathering roles. Preventing women who pass the same physical tests as their male counterparts from serving in the combat infantry is sexism, plain and simple.

To be generous to Cotton, he’s making a common mistake of conflating group characteristics with individual ones. It is true, and no one denies, that men as a group are stronger than women as a group. Women are also shorter as a group than men, but plenty of women are tall, and plenty of men are short. If you were hiring for a job that required applicants to be 5 feet 6 inches or taller, it would make more sense to measure all applicants rather than refuse to even consider measuring women. Strength and endurance shouldn’t be any different. In our era of greater attention than ever before to female athleticism, it’s particularly silly to insist on this illusion that women aren’t capable of working out and achieving high levels of physical fitness. Nothing is lost by measuring women as individuals against the standards, and we have nothing but a larger group of hardworking service members to gain.