The Weight of Military Stereotypes on Women Veterans

Should I be angry that I’m being stereotyped? Or proud that I’m defying the military stereotypes?
by Marissa Rock

Here are five military stereotypes that women veterans face during and after their service:

All veterans are men

Even though our society is well aware by now that women can be veterans, it still doesn’t erase this common stereotype. It’s already difficult to be a woman in our society, but it’s (arguably) more difficult to be a woman veteran. We are faced with constantly defending our service, only to have it disregarded. Unfortunately, I’ve come to expect to always be questioned about my service (even by fellow service members). I also expect it to be undermined in comparison to a man’s service. On one occasion, I was using my USAA debit card and the male cashier asked me, “Was your dad in the military?” *eye roll* *facepalm* This burden of needing to validate our veteran status explains why so many of us feel isolated or invisible. This experience may influence our identity as veterans after our service.

A woman’s appearance and/or stature does not fit the societal image of a veteran

My own friends laughed about me joining the military because of my petite stature. They said things like, “I can’t even picture you shooting a gun!” and “Do they even have combat boots in your size??” First of all, I very much enjoyed shooting, assembling, and disassembling my M-16 and excelled at it. Secondly, yes, my boots fit like a glove. Now that I’m a veteran, I still get “sized up” by people who learn about my time in service. One time a civilian woman tried to justify other civilians’ behavior (i.e. undermining, doubting, and/or disregarding my service) by saying, “It’s because you look so young.” Well, the thing is… my husband also looks very young, but his service is never questioned. Interesting… maybe it’s simply because I’m a woman…

Women do not serve in dangerous career fields and therefore are not “real” veterans

I recently had a nurse practitioner (at a VA facility) say to me, “You’re really young to be having so many joint problems; did you jump out of planes or something??” The tone was such that, if I did jump out of planes, it would be really hard to believe. I was annoyed and offended. I would’ve been much more receptive had her comment been, “I’m sorry you’re experiencing so many joint problems at a young age. I’m curious, what was your job in the military?”

The fact is, women can serve in any career field for which they qualify (mentally and physically), just like men. Another fact is, men are the majority… which means a large percentage of men serve in non-combat career fields (i.e. finance, services, logistics, etc.). In fact, according to 2018 data, the career fields of Communications and Supply were almost split evenly between men and women. The difference is, it doesn’t matter what career field a man was in. His service is highly respected without question. But, if you are a woman who didn’t serve in combat, it basically “doesn’t count.”

Women are not physically capable of serving alongside men

This is a belief that, in my experience, is held by both civilian and veteran men. Even my recruiter was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the physical demands, especially during boot camp. I’m not going to lie; the physical requirements were definitely a challenge for me. In the end, it became yet another aspect of military life that I excelled in. Yes, the standards are different for men and women, but rightfully so, as it is based on anatomy.

In the Air Force,  women under 30 must complete their 1.5 mile run in 16:22 or less, perform 18+ push-ups in 1 minute, and 38+ sit-ups in 1 minute. Men under 30 must complete their 1.5 mile run in 13:36 or less, perform 33+ push-ups in 1 minute, and 42+ sit-ups in 1 minute. (Just FYI, I exceeded the latter standards on every PT test after boot camp.) But for some reason, it doesn’t matter how well women score. Instead, men always highlight that women have lower standards. Ok, but… I passed you on the track AND did more sit-ups than you. It doesn’t matter. It’s still not good enough, because as a woman, you’re never good enough.

Women seen in veteran-specific facilities must be wives, daughters, or sisters of male veterans

Not that it makes it okay, but I expect civilians to be surprised when they learn that a young, petite woman, such as myself, is a veteran. What I don’t expect is to be questioned every time I’m receiving care at a VA facility. “Are you a veteran?” “Is the appointment for YOU?” “Who are you picking up for?” Not to mention, everyone stares at me in the waiting rooms like I’m an alien. After a while, it gets really frustrating… especially at the one place where I feel like everyone should assume I’m a veteran.

I know I’m not the only one who feels like this. My friend who served in the Gulf War told me that a fellow veteran at our VA facility asked if she was wearing her husband’s “Gulf War Veteran” hat. There is clearly an overall lack of awareness and understanding that needs to change, among veterans and VA employees alike. All veterans, no matter their gender, should feel welcomed at all veteran-specific facilities.

These stereotypes can perpetuate the feeling that women veterans do not deserve to be seen or heard.

a feeling often experienced during our time in service, too. My hope is that with the power of social media, women veterans will not only be seen but they will also be heard. The more that happens, the more we are defying these military stereotypes. As I listen to and read about others’ experiences via podcasts and blogs, I’m inspired to continue coming out of my shell and becoming part of the women veteran community. It’s even better when we can defy the stereotypes together, right? 

Do these military stereotypes resonate with you? Have you experienced any of them?

About the author

Marissa was 19 years old when she enlisted in the Air Force in 2011. She served as a Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. Marissa’s specialty was Battle Damage Assessment; she established training materials, checklists, and graphic templates for 877 airmen across 10 squadrons. She was chosen as a liaison officer for the Air Force Targeting Center’s Crisis Management Element where she quality checked and distributed enemy target graphics during combat operations. Marissa was named Airman of the Year in 2013, received a line number for E-5 in 2014, and presented with the Air Force Achievement Medal just before she separated in 2015.

Marissa is from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and briefly attended Millersville University prior to enlisting. She knew she wanted to return to school after her service and was excited to learn that she had been accepted into The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Marissa is a “Double Tar Heel.” In 2017, she received a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and a Masters of Science in Speech and Hearing Sciences in 2019. She is now a medical speech-language pathologist working in the home health and acute care rehab settings.

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