When 'she' is the commander in chief

As retired U.S. Army Gen. John Allen took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month, he spoke these historic words: "With her as our commander in chief, America will continue to lead this volatile world." The "her" General Allen was referring to was, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

His speech marks the first time that the case for a woman commander in chief was forcefully argued to the American public from the stage of a national convention. While General Allen's argument was made easier by Ms. Clinton's experience as secretary of state and her perceived hawkishness, it was nevertheless unprecedented.


Militaries have historically been a male domain. While there are increasing opportunities for women and transgender people, the U.S. Armed Forces remain dominated by what political scientist Megan MacKenzie has termed the "Band of Brothers" myth. Our popular notion of the military is that of small groups of elite males, brought together by grueling training and extraordinary hardship on the battlefield. This concept of the military does not reflect the reality of modern warfare and leaves little room for women. Both the military as an institution and broader American culture serve to propagate this myth through socialization, advertising, and film and television depictions. This is why it is so remarkable that a four-star general stood on stage and referred to our nation's potential future commander in chief as "her."

Elsewhere, civilian women serving as heads of government have led their led their countries into war. Under Indira Gandhi, the Indian military provided support to East Pakistan, contributing to its eventual independence as Bangladesh. Margaret Thatcher oversaw the British invasion of the Falkland Islands. Golda Meir ordered the full scale mobilization of Israeli forces in what became known as the Yom Kippur War. Although Angela Merkel became chancellor with German forces already in Afghanistan, she has led Germany for 12 of the 14 years that they have been deployed. And recent NATO meetings have been marked by the presence of female defense ministers from Albania, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. But in the United States, no woman has yet been appointed as secretary of defense. Michèle Flournoy became the highest ranking woman in the Department of Defense when she was appointed under secretary of defense for policy in 2009. Christine Wormuth served in the same position from June 2014 to June 2016.


Dismantling the often misogynist culture of the military has been a key element of recent reforms. In 1951, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services was established to provide the secretary of defense with independent advice and recommendations relating to servicewomen. In its 2015 report, this long standing committee argued that opening all positions to women would encourage American military culture to become more inclusive and accepting of diversity. General Allen echoed the call for greater diversity and inclusiveness on stage in Philadelphia. Without this new focus on diversity, imagining a female commander in chief would be nearly impossible.

The journey of women to positions of leadership within the United States Armed Forces has been a long one. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor, the first given to a woman, in 1865 for her service in the Union Army. Yet it was not until a hundred years later, in 1976, that women were permitted to enroll in military academies. As a result, female leadership within the American military is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon.

Army General Ann E. Dunwoody, the first female four-star general in the United States, achieved that rank in 2008. Six years later, Admiral Michelle Janine Howard became both the first woman and the first African-American woman to attain the rank of four-star admiral in the Navy's 238-year history. As of January 2015, a total of 60 women held flag officer ranks in the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, with none holding such ranks in the Marine Corps. Newly minted four-stars include General Janet Wolfenbarger, General Lori J. Robinson and General Ellen M. Pawlikowski, all of the Air Force.

In movies and on television, women increasingly play the role of presidents and vice presidents. Reflective of important social changes within America, this has likely contributed to the historic nomination of a woman by a major political party. However, we have yet to begin to reimagine women as soldiers and generals. Female leadership of the military will only do good things for female leadership within the military. General Allen's words reflect the reality that when change comes, it comes fast. A little more than eight years ago, there were no female four-stars. In fewer than 100 days, we may elect our first woman commander in chief.

Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. Her email is