By: Amber Mathwig
In late January of 2012, I was 29 years old and just beginning my first on campus college experience. I was excited for college. I was excited to be leaving the military after 10 very long years. I purposefully wore sweatpants and tie-dyed arm warmers most of the first month of classes – simply because I could. I was less excited for some of the classes I was being asked to take. In particular, an arts course that was taught with a feminist theory framework. Feminism!? Who needs that crap? (Spoiler alert, I did).
I, like many recently transitioned veterans, had a specific and narrow plan to graduate and that meant sticking to the outline I had been given by an academic advisor when I enrolled in my first classes. To me this plan was rigid and deadline driven by the presumed scarcity of my Veterans Affairs education benefits. So despite desperately trying to find another class that met the same requirements as this feminist theory class and fit into my schedule, I ended up sticking it out (and getting an A- in the course). Thankfully, by the end of the semester, something started to click for me as I watched films depicting women’s experiences throughout the 20th century. These films ranged significantly in their content, but included The Women, The Color Purple, My Life in Pink, and The Joy Luck Club. As I learned to discuss the implications of representation in our society through a feminist framework, I started to learn something about myself.
I had always felt something off throughout my time in the military. A lack of something, a desperation for belonging, an unease in the pre-dominantly male environments that I was in. I had thrived – according to my own expectations and those of many of my male peers – I was indeed the “exception” for most of them and “alright for a girl”. But my brain started muddling during the last 3 years I was on active duty as I watched multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault cases unfold at my command and listened to the comments made about the female victims of almost all of these cases. I began to wonder about the root causes of the discrimination and harassment I had experienced throughout my 10-year career. My brain was awakening and the feminist theory courses I took within one year of leaving the military provided the jolt to fully wake me up. I have never not thought about my gender as I transitioned out of the military.
As I moved from undergraduate student veteran to graduate student veteran to student veterans assistance coordinator over the past 6 years, I have had the privilege of being able to share in my transition experience with other women-identified veterans. As we laugh, sometimes so hard it hurts, about the experiences that only another woman veteran could understand, I also reflect upon the impact my gendered military experience had on me in the long run.
I had partially utilized the military as an escape from a community in which I felt I did not belong. While I felt as if I had a role and purpose in the military and had a secondary family on whom I could depend and have many incredible memories, I also largely felt as if I was the single point of failure in the end, the reason I could not remain in the environment. My military experience was significantly different from the experiences that I was told mattered simply because of the biological sex and gendered identity that I was and am today. I struggled to name and discuss my experiences until I encountered gender studies in my post-military transition and education.
With this feminist framework, I could understand that I had faced gender discrimination at almost every point of my career. I was denied dynamic job opportunities, pigeonholed into administrative work, often encountered the presumption that I was either unable or unwilling to complete a requirement, and barely seemed to have escaped presumptions that I advanced quickly by providing sexual favors to senior male leaders. While some instances stand out more clearly than others, it happened so frequently that I also internalized it as normal and necessary. I was finally able to name and speak about my sexual assault by acquaintances, fellow Naval personnel, in 2007. Through my own internalization of the rape myths and victim blaming that are prevalent throughout the military, I did not process this at the time of the assault. In my post-military life, I have thought about it and the associated victim blaming and rape-culture of the military often.
I’m forever grateful for being “forced” into my first feminist theory class with Dr. Sally Shedd, a brilliant, accomplished, and no bullshit woman. At the time, I had no idea what was in store for my future – either personally or for my education or career future. I thought I had it all figured out when I gleefully signed that DD-214. Now, I’m nowhere near what I thought I would be doing or who I thought I was in early 2012. I couldn’t be happier with the changes.
Today, I know that all veterans will experience a transitional period when they leave service. Many, like myself, will find it difficult and completely not what they expected. Women may experience a secondary shock as they enter back into a world that is no longer predominately male and encounter expectations for them to adhere to different standards based upon their perceived or actual gender identity and expression. Driven by my own experience, I’ve spent the past 4 years working with veterans in transition, conducting research on women-identified veterans, and discussing this research with other brilliant women veteran researchers. With this, I want to offer three (of many) general challenges of being a woman veteran.
- Females must navigate gender roles for the entirety of their military career – from basic training to the highest levels of leadership. Women often endure numerous kinds of “tests” such as sabotage, constant scrutiny, and indirect threats, that men do not necessarily experience to prove they are capable of serving in the military (Kelty, Kleykamp, & Segal, 2010). An easier way to understand this idea regarding a specifically gendered experience is to understand that while military men may have experiences without women or femininity, that there is no female experience in the military that is devoid of the effects of men or masculinity. Our experiences as we know and tell them are often seen as “abnormal” by our fellow male veterans and by society instead of a normal part of the military experience.
- Women in the military have often had conflict with each other.This conflict is not natural. It possibly exists because we understand our roles in the military and/or men’s acceptance of us in that space as a limited resource and will actively try to thwart other women from undermining our efforts to prove women’s capability. Remember all those times where you were told that your mistake or issue made ALL women look bad? It made reaching out to another woman for support difficult.
- Despite being marginalized, viewed as less capable, excluded, harassed, and often working twice as hard to be given half the recognition, military women still persevere and are resilient. This is a two-edged sword in that this perseverance and success may be done in isolation, potentially leading to the creation of a similar environment in post-military life. When we are used to pushing through the tough times, often on our own or with very little support, why would we want to try something new?
Amber Mathwig served in the United States Navy for 10 years as a Master-at-Arms. After leaving the military in 2012, she’s been perpetually stuck in higher education since, first as a student and now as a veteran services coordinator at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a struggling master’s student in Women’s and Gender Studies at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Amber’s research covers military sexual trauma, gendered military culture, and post-military transition. She maintains a list of women veterans books and films, which you can access here. Six years after leaving the military, Amber finally dyed her hair purple and is wondering why the heck she didn’t do this sooner.