I’ve started this blog four different times today but I think I finally found a way into it. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about women in the military as well as women in romance. This week on Romancing the Blog, Sarah Frantz blogs about romance and military women and about how we make up 14% of the current active army force structure. Karin Tabke points out that her book is referred to as a “little joke” in a Newsweek article about women choosing to undergo female genital mutilation reversal surgery. And I’ve blogged over the year about how I feel about certain folks over here and the difference between females who try to blend in versus those who draw attention to themselves as women first, then as soldiers.
The Newsweek article struck me, forcibly, because in it, Sila, a woman who chose to have reconstructive surgery to repair her clitoris – which was removed by other women in her clan – said that she enjoys romance novels because she wishes she could have ‘that’. In her response to the article Karin Tabke says that she’s tired of romance being jilted. She argues that romance is empowering.
I’ve kind of stayed out of the argument as to whether romance is empowering or not until now. I’ve been a student of religion for a long time and while my own religious tradition is Catholic, I challenge the idea that still holds in the Church that I am resigned to two roles: either whore or mother (Magdalene or Mary). And while I do chose to raise my daughters in that same tradition, I will also hopefully set an example for them that is more along the lines of “be whatever you want”.
What does this have to do with romance? Well, in the traditional religions, women are subjected to their husband’s wills. It is glaringly obvious in this part of the world that an unattached woman is vulnerable. Witness Africa, where rape is a tool of war and even being married is not a guarantee of safety. Women in this part of the world are limited in their world view in that they only have their mothers to look to as role models and their mothers are concerned with the more immediate problems of survival rather than women’s liberation. And female genital mutilation is performed and approved of by the women in their culture, all to gain approval of the male dominated society. This isn’t the point of this post, merely I’m using it to point out that men have taken away women’s power and convinced them that it is a good thing.
When Sila in the Newsweek article states that ‘she wishes she could be like’ the women she reads about in romance novels, I was moved, deeply. Romance novels are empowering for women. Even if the stereotypical romance reader – as mentioned in Smart Bitches Beyond Heaving Bosoms – is a frumpy spinster, romance is subversive. It gives us as women strong heroines to look to who are navigating what is still strongly a man’s world, regardless of their chosen profession. By giving a woman like Sila permission to crave her own sexuality – that is pleasure in herself as a woman, not as a thing for men to enjoy only – romance has brought awareness to another generation of women that we are not the root of all evil in the world, which is still a majority opinion in many of the traditional religions that blanket the world.
Romance is derided because women write it, among other reasons. I think it’s derided because it’s subversive. What could be worse than taking sexual power away from the head of the nuclear family – the man – and giving it to women? Not only are we taking power from a man, but we are claiming it for ourselves and that includes sexual pleasure.
This is not without consequences. Violence against women is rising around the world, both as a tool of war and as a reflection of a loss of power. While I’m not going into the discussion of rape here, I will say that as a soldier, the question of how I appear to my male counterparts is a direct reflection of me as a woman, not just as a soldier. No matter how much I might want to be one of the guys, I’m not. I’m also in a unique position over here because I go to chow and the gym with my husband: ergo, I don’t get a lot of sexual male attention. This is okay with me, but I tend to have a very visceral response to male attention. I don’t want it. I want to do my job. I don’t want special favors as a woman. But I won’t go to the chow hall without my husband because I can feel the eyes and the stares and I feel dirty because of it. Other women here have to deal with that daily. Some welcome it, others don’t but it is the cost of doing business as a woman in the military.
But, what about those women who are over here that do want to be women first, soldiers second? What about those women who like the male attention or who wear makeup simply because it makes them feel good? What about those women who have no idea how to be one of the guys because a notion is a foreign to them as being a flirty girly girl to me is? Are they wrong? Am I?
I don’t know. I think it requires balance and if you choose to highlight yourself as a woman, you will necessarily lose credibility among the males around you. I see it right now, when two girly girls moved into the TOC. They are the subject of ridicule because they spent more time on their hair than their reports. Has anyone ever told them that to their face? I haven’t for a multitude of reasons but mostly because I fear the argument will be turned against me.
Because here’s another dirty little secret: we’re our own biggest cheerleaders and toughest critics. A female editor is more likely to hammer a manuscript if she thinks it’s been written by a women. A female officer is more likely to harder on her female lieutenants than a male. And a romance writer is at once cheered if her book is ‘good’ and jeered if the writing is less than stellar. We cheer when a woman gets ahead and yet, we cringe when ‘feminists’ take to the airways defending women’s rights.
I think having a dialogue about empowering women –both in the military and in the writing world – involves many factors. I know kick ass field grade officers who read Christina Dodd. I know I’ve passed along Sherry Thomas and Laura Kinsale among others to the female sergeants I work with. I’ve had discussions about romance with male soldiers – who have never read a romance novel but deride it nonetheless. The role of women in our society can be directly tied to the perceptions of romance.
I think we need to start by mentoring and raising our daughters to look beyond Bratz and bar wenches. One of the field grade officers over here takes young privates who look at (brace yourselves profanity ahead) a female who thinks everyone wants to fuck her and enjoys the male attention. A woman in a position of power is looked up to by younger women and when this role model is someone who cheats on her husband, it sets a bad example. This major takes these young women aside and teaches and mentors them that there is more to life than getting a male’s attention. Over here in Iraq, it’s too easy to fall into the ‘queen for a year’ mentality and reduce our effectiveness based on what can we get because someone wants to sleep with us.
So we need to mentor. The RWA is a fantastic example of mentorship in action. Experienced women writers team up with newbies and provide mentorship and training in the writing world where as in the military world, we tend to ostracize those who don’t fit into our mold of what right looks like.
As the romance genre continues to evolve and the discussion of women’s roles in the military continue to evolve as the battlefield remains non linear for the next few wars, we as women will have to continue to look at our rolls in society and our contribution to it. Are we simply whores or mothers or are we something else entirely, starting with individuals? I’d argue that romance provides an example, in all its raw claiming of sexuality and the pleasure that we are now allowed to have in it, that can serve as a roll model. There are some craptastically terrible books out there, just as there are female officers who are happy to screw their way to a good report card but there are also books that challenge the very meaning of what happiness means and defines new roles for women and female soldiers who earn the respect of their peers by being a bad ass fifty cal gunner.
And as long as women are ostracized for not wanting sex to hurt and risking the stigma of daring to claim their rights as women and sexual beings, we’re doing to a good thing.
We are more than mother or whore and the romance genre leads the way in showing us a way out of the kitchen or the whore house.
Continue the subversion ladies.
We’ve got daughters looking up to us.