Carnegie Mellon University

Constructing Gender Through Representation: The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II

Author: Margaret McCaffrey
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1998

The pervasive assumption in public discussions and scholarly research on women in the military is that American women can "earn" full rights and responsibilities of citizenship by "proving" their ability as soldiers and removing "barriers" to their full integration in the military. However, the claim of "natural" binary differences between men and women rationalizes women's exclusion from liability for conscription and combat. This dissertation examines the construction of gendered binarity in the American military to pose a counter argument to the claim that women can "earn" full citizenship.

This dissertation builds on recent scholarship on the construction of gender in the American military by tracing the emergent identity of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of WWII from the inception of the program in 1942 through the Congressional debates in 1977 over granting the former WASPs veteran status. Using a variety of texts by and about the WASPs, this study examines how these various sources of representation attempted to construct gender as binary to sustain the gendered definition of the citizen-soldier. As such, it represents a contribution to this line of scholarship.

However, the purpose of this dissertation is to explore the theoretical issues at stake in adopting this methodological focus. Drawing from postmodernist feminist theory, this study challenges the conceptions of democracy and difference that inform the construction of democracy as a meritocracy. These theorists note that poststructuralism and postmodernism have challenged liberal and Marxist theories of power and the state and called into question the problem-solving model of "scientized politics" that dominates American politics. This model construes issues of equality and integration as "system" problems that can be eliminated by equalizing access. Postmodernist feminists argue that issues of equality and integration must be reconceived within a broader framework that addresses the way power operates to construct and legitimate asymmetrical social positions by producing intelligible bodies. Further, the pervasive conception of bodily difference as natural or materially "real" must be contested by exploring the cultural processes that construct the fiction of binary categorical identities. This dissertation represents a contribution to this theoretical line of inquiry as well.