Picture courtesy Women’s Press.
The United States, the fabled land of opportunity, of the free, of democracy and equality. These are the promises America touts, that one can take root and be accepted with tolerance no matter your beliefs or physical makeup and, through perseverance and determination, can be highly successful, a beaming example of the American dream. The reality of our country, however, is far from this ideal, and the monikers of our nation are more fable than reality. Throughout our history, inequality has pervaded our perspectives, reinforced by the very system intended to prevent such injustices: our government.
The first major victory for women’s rights came in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed giving women the constitutional right to vote. Since then, many steps towards equality have been made, but there are still very telling signs of discrepancy between the treatments of men and women. A national pay gap between the genders has been illegal and documented since 1963, with proponents of each side attempting to justify the difference in the statistics or identify a minimum percentage that is simply unjustifiable. In our Senate and House of Representatives, only 1/6th of each governmental body are women, and women only make up 1/12th of our state governors. However, the basis for these inequalities can be a point of contention. Conversely, military protocols are intentionally and specifically directed in a manner discriminatory toward women.
Each branch of the military, as well as the Department of Defense itself, has a specific policy regarding women and which positions they may and may not attain. Currently, the Department of Defense restricts women from being attached to any unit primarily intended for direct combat on the ground. Not only does this policy restrict women from only those units, it restricts them from entire types of operations, such as Special Forces. Aggravating the issue, the further restrictions each branch places automatically removes women from the applicability for around 30% of all military positions. The percentage of positions women can apply for varies, from as high as 99 percent for Air Force troops, to as little as 66 and 68 percent for women serving in the Army and the Marines.
This institutionally perpetrated discrimination underlies a widespread discriminatory attitude toward women in the military, which also follows the general attitude toward women throughout the United States. In 2011, the Department of Defense filed almost 3,200 cases of sexual assault, a number equivalent to one transgression every 3 hours. This number was considered a very low approximation of the total number of cases. When accounting for the propensity of unreported incidents of this kind, the estimated number of cases rose to 19,000; One incident every 28 minutes. These numbers reflect an increase of 64% in the rate of violent sex crimes from data taken in 2006.
Recently, two major events have taken place against these policies. The first occurred this past February, when the Department of Defense lifted some restrictions from its policy against women. By removing the selected restrictions, 14,000 jobs previously off limits to women were opened up. Although this is a step in the direction of gender equality, it seems paltry in comparison to more than 250,000 positions that remain closed to them. Not settling for a compromise towards equality, two women officers, each with two decades of military experience, are suing the Army for its gender discriminatory practices. This is the first time a lawsuit has been filed opposing this ban, which may influence others to voice their grievances against these policies.
Another high-profile inequality present today is in the treatment of non-traditional sexual orientation, such as gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. The first well documented gay rights movement in the United States organized as early as 1924, called the Society for Human Rights, but was suppressed by the government. Successful public gay demonstrations wouldn’t happen until the 1960’s. 1972 brought the first ruling against non-traditional marriages, ruling that denying same-sex couples a marriage license was within the rights of a state by the federal Constitution. Since this original ruling, marriage, and the civil benefits marriage provides, has been a point of controversy and a demand for equal rights activists.
Currently, there are no federal laws protecting many rights of the LGBT community. Employment discrimination protection is only handled on statewide levels. The lack of ability to marry limits many of the rights couples would be entitled to with a traditional spouse, such as family health insurance, immigration sponsoring a spouse, and employment benefits. Some states have even passed laws prohibiting a a person from adopting the child of their same-sex partner.
These types of institutional separation has a widespread impact on the treatment of these individuals. As with all laws that specifically single out a group of people, the traits in question are noticed and identified as distinguishing characteristics that make these individuals different than ‘normal’ people. The common social response, whether people view themselves as discriminatory or not, is to classify themselves differently from the people associated with these types of groupings. It becomes far different from a case of granting equality to groups that have been discriminated towards, it becomes a case of a group that has been treated differently, and still is by receiving special laws that are intended to make them equal. This distinctions serves to separate them from other social groups, and, put in the simplest way, labels them exactly as I’ve been referring to this general type of population, as a “them” that is different from “us”.
People notice difference, and these small differences are made more important when the system that is intended to protect us allows for our differences to determine how laws apply to us. When women were determined that they should be considered different from men, allowing all men inalienable freedoms which weren’t granted to women, and later addenda then needed to be put into place to give women the same rights men were assumed to deserve, the law, which has a most basic purpose of describing what is acceptable and unacceptable in our society, created a basis for treating women differently. When non-traditional sexualities were legally discriminated against, then later laws provided some of the equalities assumed for other members of our society, our legal system again established a societal basis of discrimination. The laws which originally existed to protect the rights of the majority group, white males, could have served to protect the rights of all people invariably. Instead, people were separated, discerned to be fundamentally different so as to require laws unique to them, and, even in providing them rights, distinguished them from the power elite.