Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Feminism in the Military: M. L. Buchman's I OWN THE DAWN and WAIT UNTIL DARK

For her final project in 8th grade history last spring, my daughter wrote an essay about the role of women in the military during World War II. My girl always grimaces whenever I start analyzing the stereotypes in pop music during car rides, or on the Disney Channel shows she currently likes to watch, so I was quite surprised when I heard the topic she had chosen. And as she asked me to proofread her paper, I got to learn all about the WAVES and the WACS, the WASPS and the SPARS, and the different jobs these women played when they were allowed for the first time to serve in the U.S. military in an official capacity. Though about 70% of women were employed in "feminine," primarily clerical, jobs, some took on more traditionally masculine roles: machine gunner; sniper; tank driver; scout. And I got to read all about the sexism and discrimination these brave pioneers faced: not only from individual men in the military, but also from the military's image of women in the service. Recruiting posters, flag-waving films, and the like depicted females who served their country as overtly feminine, even domestically-inclined, out of fear that if the public believed women would be "masculinized" by military service, a huge percentage of the work force necessary to wage war would be prevented from joining up.

Sexism and discrimination rarely play a role in romance novels featuring heroes who serve in the military, and in particular those who serve in special or elite military forces. Alpha males willing to put their bodies on the line to defend their country (and, of course, their love interests); the heightened tension and emotions inherent in war- or battle-situations; the double shot of readerly pleasure available when patriotism and love become intertwined—these seem to be the characteristics that most appeal to readers of the military romance.

The military heroine is far less common than her country-serving counterpart. Perhaps this is due to writers' worries that a military man's heroism might somehow be undercut by the presence of an equally strong woman warrior. Or fears about a military woman's "masculinization." Or perhaps it simply reflects the U.S. military's 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy, which prevents women from being assigned to ground combat units.

But as former Army officer Steve Griffin points out, an administrative loophole that allows women to be "attached" if not "assigned" to combat units means that more than 230,000 American women have engaged in "combat situations" since 2001. This population of female soldiers, and the women who admire or wish to emulate them, seems a demographic ripe for romance authors to capture.

One writer set to take advantage of both the gap in military policy and the gap in romances with military heroines is M. L. Buchman, one of a growing handful of male writers who have begun to recognize the potential of the romance/suspense genre. His new series features the army's Special Operations Aviations Regiment (SOAR, gotta love those military acronyms!), nicknamed Nightstalkers, not a combat unit, but rather a support unit, an elite helicopter group designed to support general and special forces' operations. Thus, its members can (and do, in Buchman's depiction) include women as well as men.

But as the opening scenes of each of Buchman's novels makes clear, bullets shot and rockets launched don't care what label the army has slapped on a soldier; soldiers are wounded and die, whether members of official combat units or support. Whether male or female.

Featuring women in military roles primarily occupied by men in romance novels would be a feminist move in itself. But Buchman's books move far beyond token feminism, not only by featuring different constructions of military masculinity, but also by depicting heroines admirable for, and loved because of, their intelligence, their strength, and their desire to prove themselves the best of the best at what they do.

Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III, a helicopter co-pilot, and Staff Sergeant John Wallace, a mechanic, are "all business" when they're in the air on a mission. But unlike their commanding officer, Mark Henderson, neither of them embody the  alpha hero character common in much military romance. Archie's a typical beta: co-pilot, happy to be second-in-command to Commander Emily Beale; tall and lean, more of a runner than a bruiser; and not at all easy around women, despite his economically-privileged upbringing. "Big John" has the body of a warrior (or an offensive lineman), but on the ground, he's the fun-loving, cheer-you-up type, "always the first with a story, a smile, a laugh." Neither is aggressive, controlling, or needs to dominate the world or his fellow unit members. Rather than drawing upon the same vision of alpha military masculinity for the heroes of his books, changing only each hero's name and job description, Buchman suggests instead that there are multiple types of men who can embody heroic masculinity: shy men and happy men; burly men and lanky ones; men content to allow a woman, or a man, to lead.

MH-60 Black Hawk SOAR helicopter
One thing that all Buchman heroes do have in common, however, is a respect for the skills and strengths of their fellow female soldiers. Neither Archie nor John needs to save, rescue, or otherwise lord it over the women with whom they serve. And especially not over the women they come to love. As John describes the new addition to his helicopter team, "Meeting Connie Davis, you wanted to dismiss her as some cute Connie Homemaker. The girl next door brought to life right out of the television screen. But he'd run into the wrong end of her very keen mechanic's mind more than once."

Neither Connie nor tough-as-the-streets sharpshooter Kee Smith is a perfect, flat military Mary Sue. Each has her problems, and her weaknesses, weaknesses that striving to be the best of the best in the army had allowed each to mask. Both Archie and John learn to care for these women because of the vulnerabilities they reveal. But ultimately it is Kee and Connie's professionalism, their skills, and above all their strength that makes these women mean more to them than any other person has before. "You share [Emily Beale's] strength," John tells Connie. "A quiet power. It's mesmerizing." Connie's response—"I like being called powerful. I like the way it makes me feel"—suggests how being recognized for ones' strengths, rather than simply being protected from ones' weaknesses, can be a particularly compelling spur to love.

Buchman's novels spend little time depicting the difficulties women still experience in the army and other armed services. Perhaps because his novels are romances, rather than works of realism, and thus are not obliged to present a fully rounded depiction of the military? Or perhaps because he wishes to portray women as heroes, rather than in any way as victims? The one incident in Dark in which a subordinate acts in a sexist manner leads immediately to punishment—the male soldier is not allowed to advance to the next step in the SOAR training. It's an ideal, perhaps, Buchman's assertion that there is no room at the highest levels of the military for anything likely to weaken the team or its mission, as discrimination and sexism do, but an ideal worth dreaming of.

Having spent the last ten years of her life attending a Quaker school, my daughter seems unlikely to choose a career in the military. But if in some strange case of young adult rebellion or patriotic fervor, she heads off one day to a recruiter's office, it's good to know that she has a long history of women before her paving the way for gender equality: the WACS, WAVES, and other World War II servicewomen; the four military women who, with the Service Women's Action Network, recently filed a lawsuit against the Combat Exclusion Policy, arguing that since women have been serving de factor in combat since 1994, they should be granted the rights, privileges, and opportunities offered to the men who serve in fact; and the military women in romance novels such as M. L. Buchman's, women who are valued not for the way they fill out a uniform, but for the way their skills contribute to the work of the nation's defense.

M. L. Buchman, I Own the Dawn. Sourcebooks, 2012.

 Wait Until Dark. Sourcebooks, 2012.

Photo/Illustration Credits:
"Be a Marine": Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
SOAR Unit Insignia: Wikipedia
MH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter: American Special Ops.com

Next time on RNFF:
Disney Princesses, Feminism, and Race


  1. One writer who has been depicting women in the military since the 1980s is Lindsay McKenna. I like her earlier romances more than her current ones, which I stopped picking up years ago. But the early ones have good perspectives on military women and sexism. http://lindsaymckenna.com/book-series/ The Women of Glory series specifically has soldier heroines and the sexism and rape they face in the military. She also wrote under the name Eileen Nauman and has military romances under that name as well.

  2. Thanks, Jenny, for the recommendation. Do you think the WOMEN OF GLORY series manages to portray the difficulties of military women without having them be "rescued" by a love interest in some way?

  3. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and interesting write-up. I debated long and hard about the question you raise, realistic vs. idealized treatment of women in the military?

    First, the accounts I can find show there is less and less of the bad as men or women climb into the more elite units; it becomes less about individual competition and more about the shared beliefs and goals. That aside, discrimination and abuse definitely still exist.

    My conscious choice was more about "What did I want to pass forward?" I have a daughter now in college. I wanted to pass forward the belief that we can be better than we are, that we can be respected for what we do. That is a mindset my wife and I worked hard to pass on to her. (That did not stop me from ensuring that she was a black belt before she graduated high school.)

    My choice as a writer was that the challenges we face of simply being ourselves was hard enough, and that is what I chose to focus on. I found the Nightstalkers to be a fun and interesting backdrop to explore those personal stories. My personal motto is, "To champion the human spirit." I seek to do that with each word I write, each story I chose, and how I treat those around me.

  4. M.L.:

    Thanks for stopping by the blog, and adding your thoughts about the idealism vs. realism dilemma. My mentioning this issue in the blog wasn't meant as a criticism of the choice you made, but rather an opportunity for me and other readers to consider both the benefits and costs of both approaches. I can definitely relate to your thoughts about what you wanted to "pass forward" to your daughter. Thanks for giving her, and other readers, books where woman can be respected and loved for their strengths.

  5. Hi Jackie, Oh, no. I didn't go to criticsm at all. It is a fascinating topic that I think you tackled better than any I've read before. It is a constant problem for writers, what story do I actually want to tell. The story I set out on for all my writing is "how do we make ourselves better, so much better that we can find true love?" rather than "how do we find love in this harsh gritty world?". Even in my science fiction, thriller, and fantasies, it is about becoming who we truly are more than the world I create. It's a choice each writer has to make. No one answer is better or worse, it's just where I landed; telling stories of hope and triumph. I also love writing about strong women, they're way stronger than men. I've learned that from personal experience. :)

  6. ML, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments. I'll be checking out your books!

    Jackie, what I always enjoyed about the early Eileen Nauman/Lindsay McKenna books was that they portrayed strong women. Their men were supportive and respected their strength. I may reread them soon now that I'm remembering how much I liked them.

  7. I spent the decade of the 1980s in the Australian Regular Army which was a major time of transition for serving women. We were leaving behind a military service that had more in common with the experiences and perspectives of the 1940s and 50s. We had night curfews when the guys didn't and were regularly admonished to maintain our femininity and were always told to think of ourselves as ladies and addressed as such, even our uniforms were different and my soldier and officer training cohorts were not legally allowed to do weapons training. By the end of the 80's all that had changed and the 1990's saw women in combat-like situations as Australia became more and more involved in peace making and peace keeping internationally. The darkly sexist behaviours that were and are a nasty part of the military/male culture exist/ed alongside men who were good friends and mates (we have just had a major enquiry into sexual abuse in the military). One of the things I always liked about the Army was the sense of being judged by what you do and contribute not by who you are. I also think in those long ago days the guys got around their inherent sexism towards the 'girls' by comprehending us as sort of honorary blokes - we had a pass into the culture which is not the same thing as the culture being open and adapting.

    I will be interested to read these books.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Merrian. Your idea about women being acceptable because men considered them "honorary blokes" is a fascinating one. Would being an honorary bloke mean that these women were not at all perceived as potential sexual or romantic partners by the men?

    2. Remembering that this is 20-30 years ago now, it seemed to me that serving women were more likely to marry a fellow serviceman and servicemen were more likely to marry civilian women. It worked out because the female numbers serving were so much lower than the total.

  8. "Honorary Blokes." I like that, it's very Oz in so many ways.
    I think that women, especially ones entering extremely male environments, have a choice of roles they can choose, or that are put on them. That's actually how I cast my books in this series:
    #1 Emily Beale -Meets them on their own ground, and is simply and quietly better.
    #2 Kee Smith -Flaunts her sexuality as a defense or weapon (at least that's her outside persona). She confronts head-on, by challenge and attack.
    #3 Connie Davis -The Little Sister, the "honorary bloke" role. She is treated that way, except by her love interest, of course, who sees who she really is.
    #4... well, that would be telling. But her role is to ignore everything around her and be herself without accepting a male-environment-imposed role. Or caring what others think (at least on the outside).

    There are a bunch more. I highly recommend "Goddesses in Every Woman -a new psychology of women" by Jean Shinoda Bolen if you really want to delve into this. As a writer exploring roles of women in fiction, it has certainly helped me.

    1. M.L.:

      Yes, in the blog I commented upon how you constructed different types of masculinity, but you also show different constructions of femininity, too. Although I was struck by how you had to "feminize" the fairly threatening (as far as gender roles go) Kee by having her take on the mother role toward a child...

  9. There are major, major problems with rape in the US military. This Guardian article summarizes it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2012/oct/29/rape-military-shocking-truth

    But idealism vs realism is a difficult dilemma. There's value to both approaches, as you said, Jackie. For me, I do approach social problems in my writing because I feel like I'm complicit in some of them if I ignore them, and others I have no bearing on. Feminism is one that affects me and I can affect. It's a challenge. Trouble, weakness, pain, etc., those all make for great conflict, but I'm always thinking, "Am I portraying her too weak?"

  10. Thanks, Anonymous, for the pointer. This quote from the artcle jumped out at me:

    "a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire." So much for keeping women out of combat...

    There should be room in romance for both approaches, idealism and realism. And I hope that writers who strive to be feminists are always thinking "Am I portraying her too weak?" whether they take either approach.

  11. A couple of observations that connect to thinking about masculinities and femininities...

    In those days we were ladies or girls - 'women' was almost not polite, yet it is who and what we are and what I strove to be.

    My brother did 20 years in the Navy and I remember a conversation we had about when women first started serving on ships. Traditionally if you took your smoke and a brew down to the aft deck it was a sign that you just wanted to have a quiet moment on your own - a time out from the complete lack of privacy that came from 6 hrs on 6 hrs off and hot bunking.

    The women struggled to get even this modicum of space, my brother had to tell guys to leave them alone. Brother and I thought two things were going on (1) that male thing were they can't see a woman without thinking that she should be available to them (2) the missing feminine - these often very young guys just wanted to be near someone female, near something that was missing in their own lives not just in the male world of the Navy. I used to see something similar when I had contact with male only combat units. In Oz they were not only male-only but geographically isolated as well.

  12. I know the "missing feminine" is a huge factor. My wife's mother was a nurse traveling by U.S. destroyer at the height of WWII. She and her fellow nurse were the only two women aboard. On Christmas Day, the captain invited them onto the deck. The entire crew had turned out in their dress whites and sang Christmas carols to the only two women for perhaps hundreds of miles around. She said it was the single most romantic moment of her life.

    She also told of the men who would come to tap on her locked door late at night, begging for just an aspirin. She'd been ordered not to open the door to such requests. She claims she never did, so we're left to conjecture what they were hoping for.

  13. Merline Lovelace has written a lot of military romances (as well as some which aren't) and she was instrumental in establishing RomVets for women romance writers who've been in (or, I suppose, still are, in) the military.

  14. Thanks, Laura, for the pointers. You hold a wealth of historical information, and are so willing to share!

  15. This really touches my interest deeply. I never had visited a kind of blog that has the description of the website. The internet design really corresponds the complete topic on the blogger. Thanks for sharing this impressing post.

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  17. Hi everyone! I know this comment is over 2 years late in the making, but I just had to comment even if no one ever looks at my comment. I am so glad to finally be able to read books that center on women in the military. I realize that there are not many out there to read or I just haven't been looking in the right places.

    When I was looking up military romance, I just happened to see The Night Stalkers and so I was curious. When I started clicking on the books, they sounded very interesting to me. I admit I was at first turned off by the author being male because it wasn't something that I had ever seen before. But I decided to read The Night Is Mine and I have to say that that book started my sort of binge (if you could say) of my whole summer in my room trying to find other books that centered on female lead roles in military novels.

    Anyways, that is all I wanted to say but if someone does happen to read my comment and they know of any military female lead roles in novels, could you post and let me know about them?

    Thank you!!!!

    1. Hi, RomanceFan:

      You might try the books of Jessica Scott. Her romances feature men and women in the military, but less action-oriented plots. More about military life at a base in the U.S., and realistic problems soldiers of both genders face.


  18. Hi RomanceFan,
    So glad you're enjoying them. The Night Stalkers is now over a dozen titles (more info at www.mlbuchman.com). Firehawks has a military aspect in which heliaviation wildland firefighters end up in quasi-military events. And in December, I'm launching a new series starting with "Target Engaged" that follows the first women of Delta Force (available for pre-order now. :) ).

    Thanks for picking up this male author. Hope you keeping enjoying my stories despite that genetic shortcoming of mine. LOL!

  19. I am so delighted to find this site and this thread. Thank you Ms. Horne. I'm working on my Masters at a British University here in Brussels, Belgium and one of my classes is on Gender and Conflict. The issue of women in the military is a hot topic and what I would like to do is write my paper for the class on how military women are portrayed in popular fiction (romances). Do these books challenge or confirm gender sterotypes? I think they challenge and I want to use Buchman's work as an example. I'll need others (and if you have recommendations I would be really grateful for them). And I will pick up Buchman's new series. Thank you Mr. Buchman for some great writing and characters (men and women).

    1. Hi, Victoria:

      So glad you're finding the site helpful. I've written a couple of other reviews of military romances here on the blog:




      You might want to check out books by Suzanne Brockman, too. I wrote about one here (with an ex-military hero): http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2014/03/control-and-alpha-male-suzanne.html

      And here's a list of military romances from Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/military-romance

      Good luck with your paper!

      -- Jackie

  20. Hi Victoria,
    I'm so glad that you found my books enjoyable. I actually have tried to tackle different stereotypes with different characters. For example: I think there are some primary role choices that a woman is forced into and I tried to use some of those as my character lynchpins in the first four Night Stalkers novels: 1) The Night is Mine -simply be better than everyone else, 2)I Own the Dawn -confrontation with sex as a weapon, 3)I Own the Dawn -the little sister role, 4)Take Over at Midnight -the wild one. I've tried to do tackle other stereotypes in other books, but these four create perhaps the clearest arc. Personally, I think men have a ways to go to catch up to women and what they can do. I also write to create the world I would wish for my daughter.

    If I can be of any help on your paper, answering some questions, etc. Please let me know. You can easily contact me through my website http://www.mlbuchman.com/contact-the-author/
    Best of luck with it,

  21. Dear Jackie, Wonderful! Thank you so much. I will read your reviews and start looking at that Goodreads list. The class is outstanding. I joined it more or less by accident but I am very glad I did. My field is actually International Migration (timely topic and I write a blog about it) but I was curious and liked the professor very much. So I signed up. :-)

    Matt, Wow, you anticipated one of my questions - why you wrote these novels and what you were trying to accomplish. I think you did an outstanding job. This morning I met with my professor and she gave me a go for the topic - she really liked it. Thank you so much for offering to answer more questions. I will contact you through your site. Looking forward to it.