The first woman to head the U.S. Air Force Academy took up her post Monday just as the Pentagon prepares new rules to address the epidemic of military sexual assaults. A 1981 graduate of the academy and a former Rhodes Scholar, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson is the first female superintendent since the Colorado Springs academy was opened by President Eisenhower nearly 60 years ago.
Johnson’s leadership comes at a troubling time for the Air Force: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called sexual assaults in the military “a “scourge”–one for which there is–as yet–no cure. The Pentagon currently estimates that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year–up from 19,000 in 2010. Only 3,000–a fraction of total estimates–were reported.
On Tuesday, NOW Guest and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put the military sexual assault epidemic in the broader context of American gender norms:
Its deepest roots…are the cult of hyper-masculinity, which tells boys that aggression is natural and sexual conquest enviable, and a set of laws and language that cast women as inferior, pliable, even disposable.
There is a silver lining for military brass, Bruni suggests:
…that’s a resolvable tension, if men are conditioned to show the same self-control toward women that they do, successfully, in following myriad military regulations; if they’re encouraged to call out sexist behavior; and if, above all, commanders monitor their own conduct, never signaling that women are second-class citizens.