America is Clearly Better Off With Women Leaders On Capitol Hill

In a hearing on sexual assault in the military last week, the seven women on the Senate Armed Services committee pushed the military to finally do something about its sexual assault crisis. In focusing on this long ignored and unaddressed issue, their advocacy provided a perfect example of why it’s so important to have women in leadership roles.

The prevalence of sexual assault in the military has only gotten worse lately. The Pentagon estimates that up to 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2011. The details behind those numbers are even more disturbing. Recent reports include the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office being arrested for sexual battery, a Member of Fort Hood’s Sexual Assault Response Team being accused of running a prostitution ring and abusing subordinates, a soldier secretly videotaping female cadets he was responsible for training while they showered, and convicted rapists walking free without any jail time.

Even as the negative publicity had grown over the years, the Joint Chiefs admitted that little had been done to confront the issue, with Senator Bill Nelson adding that his raising of the issue seven years ago was only met with “dead silence.” However, now that the Senate Armed Services Committee has a record seven female members, this issue is being forced to the forefront.

The female Senators led the charge in last week’s hearing, calling the Joint Chiefs out for doing nothing about sexual assault and introducing legislation designed to force change. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that would allow victims to report assaults to military officials outside of their chain of command, while Senator Claire McCaskill brought one that would eliminate a military officer’s ability to overturn a verdict after a trial. Given frequent past examples of commanders advising victims not to report assaults or retaliating against victims, and some instances where victims were required to report a crime to the very person who assaulted them, these bills have the potential to force critically important changes within the armed forces. 

That advocacy stands in stark contrast to the comments made by certain men in the hearing, highlighting the huge value of having women leaders and advocates on the committee. While the Senate’s women pushed for changes that would prevent sexual assault, Senator Saxby Chambliss tried to blame it on hormones and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh III said the “hook up culture” was at fault. The difference is even clearer when this hearing is held up against last year’s infamous birth control hearing, which featured an all male panel and no female voices at all.

This is not an indictment of all men, as numerous male allies have spoken up during this debate too, including President Obama’s comments at the Naval Academy’s graduation and John McCain’s reproving statement that he wouldn’t feel comfortable advising women to join the military in this current environment. These comments matter, as both the public stands and private actions of men are absolutely critical to confronting sexual assault, whether it’s inside or outside of the military.

Yet, this hearing still shows that women tend to bring a different and needed perspective to leadership positions, thereby providing the diversity of thought that makes any kind of institution better. Even before this hearing, the Armed Services Committee’s members often approached their roles differently across gender lines. According to Senator Gillibrand, “the men asked all the questions about ships, hardware, that sort of thing. We asked why divorce and suicide rates were so high.” Both of those categories are important, but the latter topics weren’t getting raised without women in the room.

Just think about the difference it would’ve made had Senator McCaskill, who has advocated for rape victims since her days as a prosecutor, lost her seat in 2012 to her challenger, Todd “legitimate rape” Akin. This hearing is yet another example of how we’re better off when women have a voice and have power on Capitol Hill.

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Dan Baum

Foundation Executive Director, Double Dukie, Feminist, Habitat Global Trip Leader, MBA in Social Entrepreneurship, Unpaid Spokesperson for the City of Durham, North Carolina.

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