Skip to content
women, woman rights, sexism, semnatics, words, gendered language, feminism

Sexism and Semantics 

A combat arms officer’s perspective on why gendered language matters.

Words: Sara Cratsenburg
Pictures: Cristina Gottardi

When I talk about sexism to many of my peers in the Army, there is general consensus that sexism has no place within the military, that it is damaging to morale, welfare and readiness. However, determining what sexism looks like and sounds like varies from person to person. We generally agree that remarks blatantly damaging and disparaging to women are rarely heard, but smaller and seemingly harmless remarks or phrases are written off as jokes, or as a right of passage to prove a woman is now part of the team. However, semantics in a world where we are taught that “words mean things” become dramatically important when discussing, identifying, and combating sexism. Sexist language has evolved to exclude women from the profession of arms, and reframes their existence as a burden to men in their unit. Given the recent history of women serving in the Armed Forces, and much more recently in the combat arms branches, we cannot ignore the cultural barriers that women face in order to be accepted as part of the team.

Women are still a minority within the Army, and even more so the combat arms community. The Department of Defense Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion most recently published that across the military, women make up 14% of the enlisted population and 15.7% of the officer corps. It is irresponsible to dismiss claims of sexism and exclusive language considering integration only happened in 1948, and in all roles of the military in 2016. Given the recent past, sexist sentiment still exists systemically and much more so culturally. Leaders in combat arms branches must implement and support policies of equity if we hope to create a space in which women feel welcome and valued for what they bring to the fight.

As a woman in a combat arms branch, I’ve found myself frequently fighting to see where I fit in a space that was built by and for men. Most recently, at the field artillery captain career course, we had a motivational speaker address the class to share his experiences as a Prisoner of War in the Vietnam War. He consistently addressed the class as “gentlemen” and referred to us as “husbands and fathers.” While well intentioned, it was clear he was not speaking to me nor to the other three women in the room. There was inherent value in the discussion and profound lessons learned, but failing to acknowledge the reality that both men and women were present creates an environment in which women are unwelcome. This failure also erases women’s existence in the room. It is impossible to exist in a space in which you are not addressed.

Sidelining women in combat arms branches further stigmatizes women and suggests we do not belong. Using sweeping gendered pronouns makes women feel invisible and further forces us to try to fit within the masculine mold that has been the default. Language of inclusivity or simply saying “ladies and gentleman” not only acknowledges everyone in the room, but also acknowledges the history and struggle women have undergone in order to have a seat at the table.

Using sweeping gendered pronouns makes women feel invisible and further forces us to try to fit within the masculine mold that has been the default.

Discussions surrounding women integrating within combat arms units are also steeped in sexism, despite well-meaning attempts to create spaces in which women are welcomed. I saw this firsthand when a peer received his first 13B (cannon crew member) enlisted woman. Upon her arrival, he took me aside to express his concerns about her disrupting the culture of his platoon. Further inquiry revealed that he was worried that she would develop a romantic relationship with some of the men in the unit. He began to cite how he wanted her to feel welcome and part of the team, but wanted to make his stance clear: his platoon’s family dynamic would not be disrupted as a result of “inappropriate” relationships.

This platoon leader had succumbed to a common misconception that men and women in one organization would sleep together. Instead of treating his platoon equitably and having the discussion with everyone, he singled out the first woman in his care, and laid a groundwork of distrust and unease toward women in his formation.

Fostering trust within an organization with regard to gender integration relies on being mindful of semantics to create environments of inclusivity and equality. Much of the time, language is used to place all of the accountability on women to set boundaries, rather than leaders advocating for women from the start. As a result, women are othered and singled out within formations, like I saw with this particular platoon leader. His rhetoric promotes a false sense of equality in which separate but equal rights and dignities are given, but overlooks the importance of equitable treatment of women where they are seen and heard as soldiers — as part of the team. The platoon leader had placed the onus entirely on the inbound soldier, thereby forgetting the Army’s team-oriented ethos. He made it a problem with an individual woman, rather than an issue of men viewing her as a romantic partner, instead of a team member.

In another example, as an executive officer, I saw two soldiers form a romantic relationship in one of our platoons. I overheard a conversation between her platoon leader and platoon sergeant who said, “I don’t like it… but who am I to deny [him] a piece of meat.” Here, language is used to ensure that women are not only being excluded from the team, but are removed of their personhood entirely. While this non-commissioned officer freely stated he supports the Army’s qual opportunity program and has raised three daughters, his language promotes division and inequality between his male and female soldiers. This language postures women as the risk to the unit’s cohesion and a “problem” that requires resolution.

It is impossible to serve in the Army as a woman without acknowledging the elephant in the room: sexism is alive and well in the combat arms community. We are left with remnants of a culture that has had historic, systemic barriers to women that continue in different forms today. While the problem of sexism cannot be solved overnight, simply changing our semantics when addressing and discussing women is a first step towards making all persons feel included. Successful implementation of equitable attitudes towards women and all minority groups will ripple through the Army. When all soldiers are seen and heard for the value their diversity brings to the table, whether that be gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, we not only improve soldiers’ wellbeing but also readiness. In a profession in which we are taught that “words mean things,” we must do better when we talk about women.

Sara Cratsenburg is a Captain in the United States Army and currently on assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in Feminist Studies, and is the first woman from her institution to serve in a combat arms role. 

Sara Cratsenburg

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.