Not the First Female Anything

Posted on July 9, 2013

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I was perusing a particularly exasperating article about sexual assault in the military, and as is my habit, I looked up the author to see her background.  She, like me, is a military veteran.  Jammed in among her credentials are a couple of phrases:  “one of the first female officers to graduate from…” and “the first female commander of….”    I am intentionally leaving out the specifics.

When disenfranchised groups begin to integrate with the rest of society, someone has to be first.  But there comes a point in the integration process when it is neither helpful nor accurate to continually point out that women (or minorities) are “breaking yet another barrier.”  Once women have cleared a big hurdle, we need not then celebrate every single time a woman moves into some variation of that hurdle, some nook or cranny as yet unoccupied by a female but otherwise very like all the other nooks and crannies that may or may not have been.   The first female combat pilots?  Yay!  Barrier broken, check that block, move on and don’t dwell on it.  We don’t need to enumerate the first female Cobra pilot, the first female F-22 pilot, the first female A-10 pilot, the first female A-10 pilot in the Southwest Asia region, and so on.  That gets tiresome, trite, and frankly annoying.

I don’t know exactly why the “first woman in this tiny nook or cranny” claim is so irritating, but it is.  Maybe it smacks of some kind of me-too consolation prize.  Or maybe a sort of juvenile “girl power” statement that celebrates women’s progress while simultaneously whining that it has been so long in coming.  Or maybe just getting girlie footprints all over everything and thumbing their noses at the naysayers out there who were against women in the military/combat/ whatever.

Maybe the problem I have with it is that it is treated – as the author’s bio in this case treated it – as a credential, as some kind of qualification.  I believe it should be sufficient to list one’s credentials as “graduated from…”  and “commander of….”  Being the first female in some particular corner of the military is not really an achievement, any more than being the first guy from Wyoming to have the job is an achievement.

You know what I would rather know, but can’t tell from her bio?  How well did she do those jobs in which she was a “first woman”?  That’s where the real achievement lies, but “first women” are too often silent on that aspect of their experience.  I’m not saying that “first women” aren’t good at their jobs, I’m just saying that when they focus so strongly on their gender, no one knows what their actual performance was like.  If their performance was successful, but not truly, measurably in the highest percentiles, then the credential should read:  “commander of…” and that is all.  Just like what the guys get to claim.

Maybe that’s why the “first woman” claim bugs me.  Women want to have the same opportunities, to do the same jobs, to be respected and treated as the equals of men.  I get that; hell, it’s what I want, too.  But in my view, gender-as-achievement, and true equality in the workplace, are mutually exclusive.  You can’t be equal if you are always playing up the thing that makes you different.

No, the only reason for listing oneself as the “first woman to…” is to build one’s credentials as a women’s-issues expert.  And sure enough, the author in question has focused her academic and post-military career on exactly that topic.  She had a job with a women’s organization, working on women’s issues.  Her Master’s thesis was about women in the military.  She has written a book about women in the military.  She continues to study military and gender issues.

I concede, we do need folks who will push against social inertia to open up opportunities to women and minorities.  It’s a long process;  we have come a long way from, say, 1975; and we have a ways to go yet.  But in my own observation, proclaiming one’s “first woman” status can be seen as having an agenda or a chip on one’s shoulder; at the very least, it sets one apart from one’s colleagues rather than being one of the group; it can actually be counterproductive.

I am pleased to have not been… at least, not knowingly… the first female anything.  And if I were, I wouldn’t claim it.

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