A beaming NOW Vice President-Membership Karen Johnson is pictured here with several of the Virginia Military Institute's first-year female cadets, whose cause she championed in media interviews, speeches and an amicus brief. Photo by Angie Dickson.
by Lisa Bennett-Haigney,
The past year has brought to light, yet again, what many service women have long known – military service can be tough. Not just because of the grueling demands, but also due to frequent experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination.
From young trainees at a basic training camp in Maryland to career service women working with the Army's top enlisted soldier to thousands who called a now-defunct harassment hotline, military women are coming forward in record numbers with serious allegations of sexual misconduct.
As each new story surfaced, NOW demanded the military take immediate action and institute "zero tolerance" for harassment and discrimination. NOW Vice President-Membership Karen Johnson has been a tireless advocate for an outside investigation of military abuse. She has also spoken out against the use of sleazy tactics that further victimize the women who file complaints.
Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, stripped of his title as sergeant major of the Army after it was ruled he would face court-martial on 20 charges of sexual misconduct brought by six service women, has used this "nuts or sluts" strategy in his defense. During the preliminary hearing, McKinney's attorneys questioned the women at length about prior sexual activity, personal family matters and sexual orientation. In an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, one of the attorneys named the women and asked soldiers watching to call him with information about the women.
"Lesbian-baiting is used to portray women as man-haters who make up stories," Johnson said. "It is used to discredit the woman's testimony and to scare away other women from reporting abuse. In the military this threat has extra ammunition, because it can also mean losing your job, your career, your pension."
McKinney's trial starts Jan. 6, and NOW plans to continue monitoring the practices of his legal team inside and outside the courtroom.
Studies Reveal Institutional Ills
The Army recently released an unprecedented study initiated, in part, because of the numerous charges of sexual abuse at its Aberdeen, Md., training base last year. The report reveals that 84 percent of Army women have experienced offensive and sexual behavior, unwanted sexual attention, coercion and/or assault. Fifty-one percent of the women surveyed said they faced job discrimination because of their sex. Women soldiers reported a low level of trust in the complaint system and a lack of faith in commanding officers to respond to harassment, allowing the environment to persist.
The study, conducted by a panel of senior Army officials and civilian military officials, surveyed 30,000 troops at 59 Army facilities worldwide. It is the most comprehensive report yet on the working relationships of women and men in the military.
A second study, commissioned by the Defense Department and conducted by Rand's National Defense Institute, discovered little progress toward gender equity in the military. In 1993 and 1994, Congress and the military's civilian leadership ordered nearly 48,000 combat-related jobs opened to women; however, less than two percent of those jobs have been filled by women since that time. Although enlisted men were shown to be in favor of integrating women into positions defined as combat, researchers found commanding officers reluctant to move women into these roles.
The Army has outlined steps to remedy its own findings, while Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who requested the Rand study, has promised to push for hearings into why the military is blatantly denying women access to career-boosting jobs.