The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The “Sea Witch,” Ann Hopkins, and Why We Never Seem to Learn about Sex and Gender

March 16, 2010

In the print version of Time Magazine, the story linked in the title of this post is itself titled differently. Instead of “The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh,” the story is called “The Sea Witch.” Much of the story is the same, however: a female captain in the United States Navy was relieved of her command for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew aboard the U.S.S. Cowpens. Among the (ir)relevant tidbits about Captain Graf in the article are: that she remains single, despite the fact that her sister married; that a chaplain once told her she was “a nice lady” who had “a hard job”; and that she “acted like a man.”

The “punchline” of the story, for Time Magazine, is that the Navy had long ignored “warning signs about her suitability for command” because of her gender – that is, that the Navy was looking for women officers, so willing to ignore that the available ones were actually bad at their jobs.

Twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the United States Supreme Court paved the way for the award of one of the costliest individual verdicts in the history of U.S. jurisprudence to a woman named Ann Hopkins. Price Waterhouse had denied Ann Hopkins promotion to partner because she was a woman who didn’t comport herself as such – she was too “manly” – despite having risen quickly through the ranks of the company.

When I read the “Sea Witch” story in Time, I couldn’t help thinking how little we seem to have learned from Ann Hopkins and one of the landmark sex discrimination cases in U. S. history.

Other online articles and blogs (some not linked here in order to avoid potential spam for Duck of Minerva), characterize her “temperament” as “unnatural,” call Graf “leather-skinned,” blame her for humiliating men as well as women, call her a “bull dyke,” and questioning her sexual preference.

These comments are reminiscent of those made about Janis Karpinksi, the commander of several Iraqi prisons including Abu Ghraib during the prison abuse scandal, which I have written about elsewhere. But more, they are reminiscent of the comments made about Ann Hopkins that got the courts to award her backpay and partnership in the company.

Corporations, governments, and militaries are “including” women in their ranks at record levels, though women remain far from equally represented in positions of power. Still, this inclusion does not come with an automatic reform of the organizations which are adding women to their ranks. Instead, these organizations remain ones that value traits associated with masculinity (such as strength, rationality, and autonomy) over traits associated with femininity (such as interdependence, emotion, and care). This is, however, a catch-22 for their new women members, who can make a certain amount of progress by adopting traits associated with masculinity, but are constantly questioned about what has happened to their femininity.

Melissa Brown’s research about U.S. military recruiting ads captures some of this paradox. According to Brown, the U.S. military has begun to feature women in recruiting ads, either as the target of ads or alongside men. These ads, however, display women adept at the “masculine” jobs of the military, but with long hair, make-up, and often, high heels – which is not how many women doing military jobs actually look as they are doing them. The message seems clear: a woman soldier must be as capable of masculinity and masculine tasks as a (man) soldier, since masculinity is the measure of military prowess. But, as I have noted in analyses of the media coverage and military treatment of Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, women must pair that militarized masculinity with traits traditionally associated with femininity, such as softness, innocence, kindness, and feminine appearance.

When are we going to get, individually or as a society, that is not about men and women but about masculinities and femininities? Whatever else Graf was relieved of her command for, she was relieved of her command because her behavior was so far from traditional understandings of women’s gender roles that it was unrecognizable as femininity. As one Naval Officer quoted in the Time story related, “she acted like a man, and she is now being punished for it.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins should have taught us that expecting those we perceive women to be “like women” and punishing them when they are not is unacceptable in any professional environment.

I don’t know about Holly Graf’s leadership skills – if many of the stories are to be believed, there were serious problems with the way she ran her command. But the stories about her profanity, verbal abuse, and condescension are not unique in stories of military leadership. Perhaps it is time to start asking more questions about the gendered nature of military leadership, and why it took a woman’s hypermasculinity to get us talking about it.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.