Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent two years working on a story about an all-women special ops team within the US military. It prompted a surprising revelation.
This week, two students at the US military’s West Point Academy got attention when they graduated from the storied Army Ranger School. Why? Because they were women, the first females ever to make it through the grueling training program.
For the last two years, I worked on a story about the women who helped pave the way for these new Rangers, members of an all-women special operations team built to fill a security gap on the battlefield in Afghanistan. This group of 55 pioneering women — and its subset of 20 who joined Rangers and SEALs on combat missions — has challenged and upended the traditional “hero” narratives of war. These women were bound together by what they saw and did at the tip of the spear, even as government policy officially banned them from direct ground combat. These women were both intense and feminine. They were tough as nails and sometimes painted their nails, they were happy to love CrossFit and cross-stitch. They embraced the “and.”
They were open, warm, generous, vulnerable, gorgeous, gracious and honest. And they were badass.
Before I started working on the story, I had no idea these teams existed. I knew nothing about the kind of woman who raises her hand to take part in an experiment to put women out on combat operations alongside SEALs, Rangers and other special-ops units. Like many civilians, I had precious little contact with the minority within the minority that is women in uniform. I didn’t know what to expect when I met them, other than that I was sure they must be formidable and fierce.
What I found shocked me, then shamed me. Because somehow even I, who had spent years writing about war on the front lines and about women changing their world, somehow hadn’t expected these women to be funny or feminine. I was floored to find that these incredible women were perfectly comfortable in their own skin, being women of their own making. They were deeply connected to one another. They were open, warm, generous, vulnerable, gorgeous, gracious and honest. And they were badass, too.
What does it say about our culture that somehow we are surprised by a woman being fierce and feminine, being a warrior and a mom, wearing body armor and also eyebrow pencil? That somehow this mix of attributes is seen as jarring, incongruous and un-serious? The reality is that women are many things all at once in real life.
It was then I realized that part of the charge of the story I was telling was to draw out the dual story of these women. Those of us who live well outside the world of uniforms had to understand the reality — in all its dimensions — of those serving in combat night in and night out on America’s behalf.
I needed, in other words, to show that, just like other women all around the world, these women embraced the “and” and lived it every single day. And they brought that “and” to war with them, too. Lieutenant Ashley White was a petite blonde who sold Mary Kay makeup, loved making dinner for her husband and loved to put 45 pounds of weight on her back and head out for a miles-long road march. She was incredibly humble, naturally quiet and immediately fierce and intense the moment her work demanded it. Sarah Waldman loved to make pillows from old T-shirts for her family and to spend three hours at the gym working out. Nadia Sultan, their translator, was a civilian who received not a day of military training. But when her bosses said the mission needed her, she said yes to joining critical — and dangerous — combat operations to serve as the eyes and ears and voice of Ashley White and her teammates. She may have been a young woman sporting Steve Madden shoes in Orange County malls a few years earlier, but by 2011 she was as at home in her ill-fitting hand-me-down uniform as in any other clothes she had ever worn.
It’s time for us all, men and women alike, to move beyond the cardboard versions of real-life people.
hese women lived the “and” and showed that you can be intense and warm, serious and hard-charging and ambitious and caring and funny.
The flat-screen view of women so common in our popular imagination has always overshadowed its richer and far more layered reality. For women’s lives have always had the “and” at their center. We just rarely get to see it, which means we are still confused by the idea of women who enjoy Bridesmaids and then go out on special-operations combat missions. Who bake bread in their offices and bust out pull-ups when they hit the gym. Who love to knit and also love to push themselves to their outermost limits in the drive to be their best.
We have gotten used to seeing women who are either/or — either smart or feminine, warm or intense, motherly or hard-charging — but it’s time for us all, men and women alike, to move beyond the cardboard versions of real-life people. Let’s resolve to embrace the “and” and celebrate the real-life heroes committed to serving causes greater than themselves. They are all around us. Sometimes they may even be wearing eyeliner.
Featured collage by Sacha Vega/TED. Creative Commons photos clockwise from top left: Soldier in Mirror by Israel Defense Forces; Compact courtesy of Classic Film; Hand courtesy of Classic Film; Soldiers Pulling by Presidio of Monterey; Hand Holding Lipstick courtesy of Bees Knees Daily; Woman’s Face by James Vaughan; Woman Carried by Woman by Presidio of Monterey; Military Uniform by The U.S. Army; Soldiers at Attention by Expert Infantry; Eyelash Lady courtesy of Classic Film; Stock Market by Andreas Poike.