When two women became the first to graduate from the elite United States Army Ranger School in 2015 — in the midst of debate about whether women would be allowed to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military — Bobbi Knapp took notice.
Knapp is a professor and researcher at Southern Illinois University, whose research had primarily focused on women in sports — especially the way perceptions of gender affect female athletes and the way they think about themselves in a male-dominated field.
“If you ask an average person to describe an athlete, most likely they will describe someone who is tall, muscular and powerful, and, by the way, is a man,” Knapp said of findings in her previous research in sports.
“That’s true for the military, as well,” Knapp says.
When the first two women graduated from Army Ranger School three years ago, Knapp noticed parallels in public discussions about women serving in the military and ideas surrounding female athletes — at the time, women were still not allowed to actually serve as Rangers (all combat roles were opened to women later that year). And arguments at the time against allowing women to participate fully in the armed forces centered around a perception of physical ability or inability, Knapp says.
“If you ask someone, ‘What is a soldier?’ … for most individuals, it is a male image,” Knapp says.
Knapp is currently collecting the stories of women who are serving or have served in the military. Primarily, she’s digging into how women identify as members of the military when the persistent image is one that sees the identities of soldier and woman as being in opposition to each other.
Knapp is interviewing women around the country — the world, even; one participant is in South Korea right now — and hopes to have about 50 interviews recorded by the time she’s done. Of the dozen or so interviews she’s done so far, she says about five of them are women in Southern Illinois, and others have Saluki connections.
But she’s not just interviewing these women for her research. The interviews will be transcribed and stored in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project thanks to a partnership with the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.
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While Knapp says she’s not sure how big of a ripple her project will have, at least the interviews will be recorded for posterity.
“It will be there for people in the future — at least that record will be there, which has been missing so far,” she says.
“These women often thank me, which is ironic,” Knapp says. “Because I am not the one who should be thanked.”
Knapp says the women who share their stories feel that someone listening to what they’ve been through recognizes the importance of what the women have done through the service to their country.
“One of the biggest issues for female veterans is invisibility,” Knapp says of a common theme that’s come out of her research so far. She says many women who visit Veterans Affairs for treatment are often assumed to be there on behalf of someone else, not veterans themselves.
She’s also looking at alternative therapies for women who have experienced trauma during military service.
“Women veterans have the highest rate of suicide and homelessness,” Knapp says, so she’s “trying to delve into that more to change some of the policies that are out there.” For example: alternative therapies for trauma victims, including equine therapy. She says she started thinking about alternative therapies after one woman she interviewed said she was making use of them.
“What are some other alternatives that we could support as a public and get the VA to continue to support,” Knapp says she’s asking as she learns more about female military members’ experiences.
Knapp acknowledges that her primary goal as a researcher is “collecting knowledge to have knowledge,” but says, “I’m collecting (knowledge) to hopefully have a positive change.”