The recent film “Wonder Woman” has the world in a frenzy about the groundbreaking advent of a female superhero who is valued amongst her peers, not for her sexuality or for her beauty, but for her sheer strength and ability. The beauty of the movie lies in the fact that Wonder Woman is clearly better than her female peers. She is physically and emotionally strong, she is the center of the plot, is never reduced to being a sexualized object, and doesn't have to be saved by a man. In fact, her male love interest becomes a damsel in distress. Many people I've heard discussing Wonder Woman compare her to her male peers instead. She is naturally stronger than Batman. She is more intelligent than Superman. She is less petty than Spider-Man. She is, many believe, the best of them all.
While Wonder Woman is a fictional character, the advent of such a strong superhero can teach us a great deal about how we treat women in American society. A great place to start is the microcosm of the U.S. military. I am a rising senior at my schools Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) program, where every day cadets compete with themselves to push physical and mental barriers to make themselves the officers the Military needs to fight our nation’s wars. Oftentimes, cadets also compete with one another.
I am no exception when it comes to a competitive nature. Being the only female in a class of 19 cadets is even harder, I’d say, merely because of who I am. I stand at 5 feet 3.5 inches (I am very proud of that extra half inch) and weigh 110 pounds, or “a buck ten” as some of the male cadets and cadre members call it. But my height and weight serve as a welcome challenge, not a hindrance, to myself as an Army cadet.
When the first females graduated from the elite Army Ranger school in 2015, I teared up while reading the news. I was overcome with emotion at the thought of women paving the way for someone like me to attempt the same feat. One of the most amazing things I gleaned from the experience of watching the first females graduate from Ranger School was the way in which they handled it. These women, upon being interviewed about their time in the school, discussed things like shaving their heads in solidarity with the men and failing various stages multiple times before passing through and completing the course. I was shocked when, while acknowledging that obtaining the Ranger tab was historic, Lt. Kristen Griest and Cpt. Shaye Haver discussed how they wanted to be seen as just another Ranger, just another face in a crowd of graduates- refusing to allow their gender to be their defining characteristic. Seeing these females graduate Ranger School changed the way I approached ROTC. I became less interested in comparing myself to the only the women in the company and opted to strive to be the best in my class, regardless of gender.
However, that didn't stop my peers from still seeing me as a woman. Our battalion recently completed a marathon ruck: 26.2 miles of grueling walk-running with a 35-pound rucksack on our backs. Beforehand, I was told by multiple cadre members and cadets that they didn't expect me to finish- I was simply too small.
On the day of the ruck, I finished in roughly 8.5 hours. Not as fast as many of my male peers, who weren't carrying 1/3 of their body weight, but well ahead of over half the people in the battalion. To my recollection, I finished 16th or 17th out of 36 who completed the ruck. It was no easy feat for any of us. Many did not finish at all. The sad thing is, I don't remember my exact place in the line of cadets who finished because I was lauded for being the first of only two women who finished.
While my physical fitness scores exceed the average scores of female officer candidates, they fall squarely within the average range for men. There are some things - like 100 push-ups in two minutes that one of my classmates can do - that I cannot. There are many male cadets, though, that I can surpass in particular events. While I am one of the most physically fit cadets in the class regardless of gender, I am still consistently compared to only the women.
If women truly wish to be considered equal to men in the United States military, we should demand equal judgment from our superiors and from our peers. Rather than being praised for being first out of two women, I should be put in the larger pack - say, 17 out of 37, that completed the race. If I had finished 37 out of 37 people, and was the only woman to finish, I should have been judged on my merits. I would have been the last of the pack and should be known for that. Rather than being told by my superior officer not to go into the combat arms branch I was considering because “you don't know when you'll want to find a husband and have kids,” I should be encouraged to consider my best options, just like the 18 other people in my class. A male cadet of 5 foot 3
.5 inches and 110 pounds would not be lauded for being “better than all the women,” he would be put in comparison with all of his peers regardless of gender.
Keep in mind that my opinions are not representative of the opinions of ROTC or of the United States as a whole; they are the opinions of a woman frustrated with being set apart because of gender. My hope is that soon, women in the American military can be like Wonder Woman: compared to others of her kind, regardless of gender.
Natalie Fahlberg is a fourth year student at Princeton, and a Fellow of The Campus Conservative. She is spending the summer undergoing military training at Fort Knox, in Kentucky.
Editors Note: This piece has been edited from it's original state per the request of the author.