Tammie Jo Shults and this American moment

Captain Shults has just exemplified a Third-Wave feminist principle in the most extraordinary way.

The basic tenet of feminism is that women should enjoy equal treatment under the law, and in public social practices. Since Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), there have been multiple waves of feminism as a philosophy, a political movement, and a set of practices. First-Wave feminism was the demand for the right for women to vote and the right for women to inherit property. Before that, Western women were property (unlike Muslim women, who have had property-rights since the founding of Islam). Since First-Wave feminist achievements happened too far in the past for living memory, anti-feminists employ a strategy of ‘willful amnesia’ to portray all feminism as a radical agenda. Well, getting the right to vote and controlling one’s own property are radical social changes; but do conservative women really want to give up those rights? Do conservative men actually oppose those rights for their wives and daughters?

Captain Shults exemplifies the value of both Second- and Third-Wave feminism. Second-Wave feminism is the argument that women have the right of equal access to employment and social opportunities. Shults was one of the first generations of American women who were allowed to fly combat aircraft. The Air Force had not changed policy in the 1980s, but the Navy let her fly F-18s. For the sake of all the passengers on her flight yesterday, I thank the USN. As a military pilot, it would be absurd to disparage her as an ‘elite urban coastal liberal.’ Captain Shults is a working woman and a patriot who lives in Texas.

However what is most striking is the way Captain Shults exemplified the core principle of Third-Wave feminism. Having basic rights (Wave 1), and then equal access (Wave 2), still assumed that women would have to conform to men’s roles and behavioral expectations. The Third Wave argues that perhaps women will redefine those social, political, and economic roles once they have the authority to do so. This is complicated in two healthy ways. First of all, Third-Wave feminism encompasses not just women, but a robust theory for all underrepresented groups. Any group that gets equal access, status, and authority is likely to redefine some traditional roles, assumptions, and stereotypes. Second: such redefinitions are reciprocal processes. Women as combat pilots does not necessarily mean a ‘feminine’ style of combat pilot. It might mean a questioning or rejection of some masculinist stereotypes – and those stereotypes might have been ill-suited for men, too. So people and their roles may get redefined, or re-thought.

Here is how Captain Shults embodies a Third-Wave Feminist practice: after engine #1 blows out on her plane, she is gracious in her communications with air traffic controllers. Perhaps what she is expressing is a Texan civility; certainly she is expressing a veteran’s calm under pressure.  When you listen to her discussing the situation with air traffic controllers – especially the man in Philadelphia – clearly she is not only calm, but she seems to be trying to calm him down. She signs off her communications with “thank you” and she expresses delight when she affirms that she sees the airport.

In fairness, the air traffic controller did not know how bad the situation was, and had no control over it. I would be just as alarmed as he was. But for Shults, the situation really was that bad. I am not sure how much more damaged the plane could have been and still have landed intact. Similar in difficulty to what Sulzberger faced with double engine failure, but also very different it all details. The shredded cowling meant not just total loss of left-side thrust, but much greater drag on the left side of the plane. I am guessing she had to extend drag flaps on the right wing and increase thrust on the right engine, just to stay airborne. Incontrovertibly courageous. But in her radio-communications she is not emulating the masculinist ‘steely-eyed, square-jawed’ stereotype of courageousness. She is herself, and she is a competent, accomplished veteran pilot. She maintains a sweet tone, to keep the ground-control fellow calm when he flusters about which runway she should land on. Sweetness as a supreme expression of command? That is new, and instantly makes sense when you listen to the recordings. In her situation, she needed ground control to be calm, and communicate clearly; so she manages him as well as her crippled plane.

This is what Third Wave feminism means (and not more than this): once given access to equal positions, any newly-admitted group may redefine basic assumptions about appropriate behavior in those roles – ways that might be healthier for men, too, in this case. Courage, graciously redefined.

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