Sowing Social Seeds in Sands

September 27, 1990|By Marilyn Geewax

ATLANTA. — RISKING YOUR life overseas for the ideal of freedom tends to make people less willing to put up with injustice or limits on personal freedom at home. As a result, returning soldiers often become agents of social change.

Though the years immediately after World War II brought on a conservative wave that peaked with Joe McCarthy's wild attacks on imagined communists, liberal ideas below that conservative surface were boiling up.

Black soldiers no longer were satisfied with their peacetime opportunities. Frustrated veterans began demanding better treatment for all blacks in the 1950s.

Also during that war, gays discovered that, after surviving combat, many got slapped in the face with dishonorable discharges. Gay veterans turned their anger into quiet pride, moved to big cities such as New York and San Francisco and slowly began building a social movement that didn't get recognition until the 1970s.

Korean veterans helped kick off the sexual revolution and Vietnam veterans came home questioning authority.

Now American social values are about to undergo another upheaval. When Persian Gulf tensions subside and troops return, a new wave of feminism is likely.

For the first time, large numbers of women are involved in a massive military action. Certainly women have served in the past, but most were confined to the role of nurse or clerk.

While women still are barred from combat, they now make up 11 percent of our armed forces, up sharply from 2 percent in 1973 when the draft ended.

While they could not join men in any assault on Iraq, they are facing the same threat of attack by chemical weapons. Women spend their days arming planes, operating supply lines, fixing trucks and directing missiles.

TV viewers have gotten accustomed to scenes of husbands smiling bravely, clutching the hands of frightened children, while waving goodbye to Sgt. Mom.

When those mothers return with their new job skills, they may not be satisfied with the way things used to be. Just as male veterans have come home with new attitudes, these females likely will have changed outlooks.

The 1970s' round of feminism mostly affected upper middle-class women. Those who could afford college entered the work world demanding equal pay for equal work. In an office setting, that demand seemed reasonable.

But working-class women benefited less from such efforts because they didn't hold the same jobs as men. Many women continued to make meager wages as waitresses while their brothers earned much more as construction workers or mechanics.

Now working-class women are learning new skills. A young woman trained to be an airplane mechanic is not going to return to a job as a shampoo girl. She's going to apply for a job with an airline to earn $18 an hour.

Changes resulting from the Iraqi conflict may take years to show up, but the seeds of social reform have been planted in the Saudi sands. Eventually, the push for job equality for blue-collar women will be felt here.

Marilyn Geewax is an editorial writer for The Atlanta Constitution.

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