Sundlee ’16: Pull-ups to break the brass ceiling?

Opinions Columnist

Jan. 24 marked the first anniversary of women being allowed to fill combat positions within the military. Still, before they can be fully integrated, the Department of Defense must construct gender-neutral physical performance standards. In anticipation of the new standards, female recruits and their performance in training have been in the media spotlight more than ever, and reports have been surfacing of many female recruits having significant difficulty with pull-ups. An editorial in The Washington Times responded to the news by stating that Pentagon generals “ignore (physical) differences at the nation’s peril, and to the peril of the men and women they cheerfully put in harm’s way.”

It’s true that women, in general, have less upper-body strength than men. It is one of the few definitive differences in our physiques. We’re all familiar with the scene at the Jonathan Nelson ’77 Fitness Center — women sweat on the ellipticals while men grunt and heave barbells. It’s a culture that we’re all exposed to as early as elementary school, when girls are presented with the option of doing the flexed arm hang instead of pull-ups for their fitness tests. Women tend to avoid upper-body workouts because they’re hard, and bulging deltoids aren’t that sexy, right? But is the tendency for women to struggle with upper-body exercises indicative of inferior performance in infantry, artillery or ground-combat units?

The answer is a resounding no, and dissenters should reassess before claiming the average woman’s difficulty with pull-ups negates all potential positions for women in combat roles. To posit as such is to ignore the myriad of other factors involved in face-to-face military engagement. The argument that women aren’t physically capable of fighting effectively is a tired one that is a final bastion of discrimination within the armed forces. It’s unfortunate that it needs refutation once again.

Firstly, women in combat forces is no new phenomenon. The United States will be basing its integration procedure on the experiences of other countries that have had women in their combat forces for decades. The more notable examples include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany and Israel. The process hasn’t been without challenges, and many women don’t meet the standards or choose to avoid combat. Still, the ones who do pass the rigorous testing have distinguished themselves. A study on the integration of female combatants in the Israeli Defense Forces found that women often exhibit “superior skills” in discipline, motivation and shooting abilities. Opening up combat positions to a greater pool of recruits will allow the truly exceptional to rise to the occasion and flourish.

The combat of several decades ago is not the combat of today, and brute strength is not necessarily essential for success. Today’s combative military engagements depend not so much on hand-to-hand fighting as on firepower — and weaponization is a great equalizer. Some of America’s elite snipers are women. They are deadly and can hold their weapons just as well as men can. While still important in some arenas, physicality is less and less crucial in modern combat.

In this new generation of warfare, all members of the military, designated combat units or not, find themselves facing combat situations. The enemy often chooses the time and place of the engagement and doesn’t care whether its foes are male or female. Whether we like it or not, female soldiers are fighting our wars and have been doing so for years — just without proper recognition and training. In a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 280,000 women have been sent into combat zones. Want to tell them they aren’t strong enough to fight?

Allowing women into combat roles isn’t just about being politically correct or fair. It’s about recruiting the best of the best to defend our country while paying no heed to gender. The ability to do pull-ups is in no way a reflection of leadership skills, tactical brilliance or resilience — all attributes essential to conducting modern warfare. There’s no denying that combat requires physical excellence, but arguing that something as trivial as a pull-up test discredits women’s value in combat roles is ridiculous.

In any case, the women who are to be put into combat positions will be among the elite. Basing arguments on the “average woman’s” physical abilities is irrelevant. Exemplary individuals will be the ones who emerge successful from training. As military leadership has repeatedly stated, the standards will not be lowered. The women who are to be deployed in combat units will be the ones who earn it, and who can carry their comrades out of danger if necessary. While addressing troops, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett declared that rescinding the combat exclusion policy “will not impair readiness, degrade combat effectiveness or cohesion. You are responsible for looking out for the Marine on your left and on your right, regardless of gender.”

Unless we suddenly decide to go back to phalanx warfare and mandatory conscription, the option of combat designation regardless of gender is a positive change for everyone. Not only is female integration into combat roles just, but it is also advantageous and essential to maintaining an effective military — no matter how many pull-ups the average woman can do.


Robyn Sundlee ’16 sucks at pull-ups. She can be reached at

  • terrific

    Now women can go burn down some foreigners too. Awesome. Great.

    “Defend our country”, “maintaining an effective military”–kinda sickening euphemisms for killing Arabs. But gosh wow! Women snipers!!