My experiences and conversations in woman’s veteran groups lay the foundation for writing military with women. Bias originates outside of individual characters. The differences between men and women in the military exist through interactions. Character’s absorption of these exchanges can shape their behavior. Understanding the history aids in defining a character’s actions and responses.
This portrait is deeply rooted in today’s military landscape and may not apply to created societies. During my enlistment, admitting to being anything other than a heterosexual man or woman was both illegal and dangerous.
Before reading this post, there are significant concepts to understand about the military. The enlistment document effectively gives the government control of soldiers. Soldiers do their assigned job in the place their branch sends them. Many of the alternatives available in the civilian world don’t exist in the military world. Soldiers cannot quit their job as most civilians can. Quitting the military leads to imprisonment. Except for specific scenarios, soldiers cannot transfer to another location to get away from an abuser. Soldiers must obey all lawful orders delivered through their chain of command.
Novels exist where a military character does something against orders because the character knows it is the right thing to do, everything works out in the end, and the character suffers no consequences for disobeying orders. I’ve heard civilians tell me that in similar situations, they would do what they believe is right. No, they wouldn’t. Disobeying lawful orders means going to jail. Making a character disobey an order is a possible choice, the lack of consequence removes credibility from the story.
Joe Haldeman provides several examples of seemingly pointless orders and how the military abuses literal wording contracts in The Forever War. Signing an enlistment contract is akin to making a wish with a genie.
The first illustration that I was government property occurred while stationed in Monterey. The first time I went to Carmel Beach my skin burned severely; even the exposed portion of my eyeballs turned pink. I was unprepared for the strength of the sun. After getting burned, my First Sergeant called me to his office and informed me if I ever allowed myself to get sunburned to that degree again, he would give me an Article 15 (military punishment) for the destruction of government property.
Isolation from amenities create stretches of mind-numbing boredom in the service. Isolation stems from bases far from cities, and from deployed soldiers being confined to their units most of the time. Soldiers fill time with cheap, portable entertainment and gossip.
In my experience, the amount of derogatory gossip about women far exceeded the amount of gossip about men. Talk focused on what type of woman she was or what she did.
The excessive level of gossip about others in the Army is why I don’t believe rumors impugning another’s temperament or reputation.
Characters around women soldiers brand the women with one of two labels: slut or lesbian. These labels are not related to the soldier’s real identity or behavior. A soldier’s reputation spreads through gossip and grows larger with each telling.
Continuing to use The Forever War as an example, Mr. Haldeman states that military women are promiscuous, first by tradition, then by law. Perception of promiscuity is the real tradition.
- Contributors to the slut label
- Be pretty.
- Have sex with a single person on base.
- Be raped.
- Be nice.
- Have friends that are men.
- Get drunk enough to be raped.
- Get promoted past low-level enlisted ranks.
- Remove camouflage top. Desert temperatures is not a valid excuse. Even on Army site pictures of the ACU (Army Combat Uniform), only men are in t-shirts.
- Contributors to the lesbian label
- Be ugly.
- Don’t have sex with a single person on base.
- Be a “bitch.”
My introduction to the two types of women came when another soldier told me about the types of women in the service. He warned me that I should be careful about which label I got. He implied that by hooking up with him, I could avoid labels. His logic was that by sleeping with only one person, I wouldn’t be a slut, and I wouldn’t be a lesbian.
Once, someone asked me if I wanted to have sex with multiple people. Of course, I said no. Likely a rumor started about me having sex with those people. Existing rumors about me could be why they thought I would be interested.
During my second training, another soldier confided in me about a slut who took a whole squad. If the comments contained any truth, the poor woman was probably gang-raped while drunk or drugged.
Adding rape to a story seems tempting because there is conflict. However, a lot of people don’t want to read about it for personal reasons. Consider leaving the event as character background. At a minimum, don’t provide graphic detail about the rape.
If a soldier reports rape, either no one believes her, or she receives blame for the attack. She did something wrong or forgot to do something. If the woman is labeled as a slut, she wanted it. If she is labeled as a lesbian, she didn’t know what she was missing and needed to learn.
Reporting rape through the chain of command can lead to retaliatory actions, a demotion, and sometimes a dishonorable discharge. Women who report rapes receive military punishments for bearing false witness, get put into mental illness treatment and sometimes kicked out of the service because of the report.
In the last couple of years, the military created new avenues for reporting rape outside of the chain of command. I don’t know if these changes resulted in any improvements yet, but I still see comments and articles in women’s veteran groups about punishments for reporting rape.
Avoiding rape is the character’s normal. A character would simply perform the actions, not explain them. If you need a scene explaining the behavior, show the interaction that formed the behavior.
There are many tactics to try and avoid being raped, especially while deployed.
- Have a battle buddy, and hope they are someone who can be trusted. Never go anywhere alone.
- Act violent, crazy or dangerous.
I’m not sure which contributed to my successful rape avoidance during my deployment; the lack of private areas, or the fact that I blatantly sharpened my knife while idle.
Acceptance of a woman as a full team member requires one or more of the following scenarios; a small team with a lot of shared history, distant future, or a society that is not Earth-based.
Low expectations lead to being patronized. “Well, you sure did that good for a woman.” Patronized women in the military don’t receive full credit for their effort, even if they perform better than their counterparts.
High expectations create unattainable goals. If women soldiers do happen to reach the goals, then the soldiers only grudgingly receive the minimum possible approval.
During my service, women were accused of only joining the military to find husbands. This belief is no longer prevalent. Alternate histories might feature this theme.
The slut mythology carried over into healthcare. When women soldiers went to the doctor for anything, the first question always was, “Are you pregnant?” Think of all of the times you’ve been to the doctor when that question is irrelevant, or at least not the first question that should be the very first question.
A perception exists that women get pregnant for ulterior motives. When pregnancy resulted in automatic discharges, the thought was women only got pregnant to get out of the military. Now that discharges are less frequent; women are accused of getting pregnant to get out of deployments.
When I got married, a sergeant in my company inquired if I was going to get pregnant so I could get out of the service. I earned his approval when I replied no.
Women often get accused of stolen valor, lying about service. Unless your society accepts women as military, having someone accuse your character of lying is plausible. Some people are unable to believe that women are veterans, combat veterans, or combat action veterans. Women served in the military, deployed to combat zones, and participated in ground or surface combat even before combat MOSs (military occupational specialties) opened to women.
Women military characters suffer from being over described. When the woman is the main character, her description is often provided upon meeting other significant characters. This is usually followed by that character’s reaction to her description. When the main character is male, the narrator often describes all female characters level of attractiveness every time he sees them. Describe the character the same amount you would describe male characters.
When writing military women, remember that bias lives in words and actions of others. The bias of others isn’t the personality of the character. How the character reacts and lives with the bias is a reflection of them. A lot of the information given here is scaffolding. Beware of the temptation to add too much background.
Related: Traits of (Wo)men Soldiers