Recent revelations that the US Army's most senior female officer, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, has filed a formal sexual-harassment complaint has jolted morale within the service. Coming in the wake of a series of sexual scandals, the case will reinvigorate debate about the role of women in the military.
General Kennedy, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, alleges she was groped by a fellow officer while serving at the Pentagon in 1996.
On the surface, she seems an unlikely harassment claimant. A "die-hard Army loyalist," she has heretofore shown an impeccable sense of discretion. When interviewed about harassment issues in 1997, she admitted she'd been harassed, but suggested that it is up to women to control the situation by responding unequivocally.
"I dealt with it individually," she said. "I just said 'no' in the way I needed to say 'no' and there were times when I needed to say 'no' very forcefully." Kennedy's recent behavior seems out of character with the stoic self-reliance shown in 1997.
The current case was first reported internally shortly after it occurred. In the 1997 interview, she seemed to refer to it: "I was very impressed with the way it was handled. It was investigated carefully, and there was a very positive response on the part of the army."
But she made a formal complaint last year, shortly after the alleged perpetrator was given a prominent new assignment. (The New York Times reports the officer's new post would include investigation of sexual-misconduct cases.)
The circumstances of the complaint raise suspicions that she wants revenge. These suspicions are bolstered by the fact she was recently turned down for promotion to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which would have made her the first female four-star general. She was supported by Army Secretary Louis Caldera, but blackballed by senior officers who felt her lack of combat experience rendered her unqualified. Shortly after that, she announced her retirement and has recently been mentioned as a possible candidate for the post of deputy head of the CIA.
Within the Army, the knives are out for Kennedy. Over the last few days, officers have been lining up to offer unattributed quotes to the media about her lack of fitness for command. Pentagon sources allege she has been a weak head of intelligence. Many officers resent the publicity she has received, and insinuations about the dangers of "token females" have been made.
The scandal will undoubtedly spark debate about whether the military has gone too far in accommodating women.
But what most Americans don't understand is that the military desperately needs women. The enthusiastic recruitment of females has nothing to do with gender equality. It relates instead to the fact that there are not sufficient qualified males willing to join. Most senior officers accept that the military needs women and that, given this need, changes have to be made.
In other words, the military has to be made into an institution women want to join.
The darker side of the Kennedy case will unfortunately cloud this basic need for positive gender integration. Though critics will argue otherwise, a military sensitive to women need not imply an emasculated force. There is no connection between the male soldier's freedom to harass and his martial potency. Nor should women be expected to "put up with it" simply because soldiers are expected to be tough.
Many men harass for two reasons. The first is for sexual gratification. The second reason is more sinister: Harassment offers a way for males to assert dominance over those women seen to cross gender boundaries. Male colleagues, unable to accept a female as an equal, try to reduce her to a sex object.
Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a fact of life. As women advance into positions once closed to them, harassment is increasingly used as a weapon against them. The older, more traditional the industry, the greater the problem. But if the issue is not addressed, the costs are great.
"Most of the problems are still not reported," said Mary Hoch, founder of Signature Business Solutions, which advises companies on harassment policies. "What happens is, people leave." In other words, good workers are lost.
The spate of harassment cases involving the Army might be interpreted as evidence of the Army's difficulties in adjusting to the growing presence of women. But, it might more profitably be seen as proof that the Army takes the problem seriously. Few industries have more ironclad procedures for dealing with this sort of behavior.
The Kennedy case, with all its annoying quirks, will undoubtedly inspire passionate debate, but it must not be allowed to cloud the basic issue that the military needs women and women in the military need to feel valued.
*Gerard J. DeGroot, chairman of the Department of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, is an adviser to the UN on military/gender issues. He is editor of the forthcoming 'A Soldier and a Woman: Sexual Integration in the Military' (Pearson).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society