Susan Barnes

Don't Ask, Do Tell

Susan Barnes has made some pretty powerful enemies over the past five years, including countless officers and enlisted men in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, Washington politicos and the presidents of a couple of right-wing think tanks.

She's been accused of being a "femi-Nazi," of ruining careers, of endangering the lives of military men and women, and of belonging to a "political correctness combat brigade" that helped bring about, according to one ultra-conservative writer, the "sexual fiasco" at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland--where drill instructors were accused of sexually harassing and assaulting their female charges.

In the face of this criticism, Barnes has managed to maintain her sense of humor. "If we're pissing off the right wing," she says, "we must be doing something right."

The "we" to which Barnes refers is WANDAS--an imperfect acronym for Women Active in our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and Supporters--a group she founded in the wake of the Tailhook scandal. Originally designed as a "stealth" group to advocate for and offer counseling to military women who felt unable to speak out for themselves, WANDAS instead has evolved into a powerful voice for female soldiers and a serious irritant to those who equate a traditional military with "boys only."

The voice speaking for these women is usually Barnes's. "Susie is just so energetic and articulate," says an attorney pal "from way back," Wendy Davis. "She's by far the best spokeswoman for these women right now."

Barnes is an unabashed feminist, and it has served her well. A lawyer long before it became a fashionable career choice for women, she was appointed to serve as a Denver District Court judge in 1975, when it was still relatively rare to see a female on the bench.

But in 1981 Barnes left the bench to go into private practice in Denver. The decision was economic as much as anything else, she says, although she also wanted time to spend with her husband, Medill, and their son.

She spent the next ten years handling personal-injury cases and litigation. "I don't want to make myself sound noble," Barnes says, "but I came to a point in my professional life where I was burned out and wanted to do something for the good of the order. I wanted to make a difference.

"Maybe WANDAS was my midlife crisis. Who knows? It seemed like gender issues might be something I could make a difference on."

It was Tailhook--that and an aggravating Firing Line discussion about women in combat featuring William Buckley and Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness--that inspired Barnes to take action. Drastic action.

The 1991 Tailhook convention drew Navy flyers from across the country to Las Vegas. It was a drunken brawl, eyewitnesses would later claim, during which military women were forced to run a gauntlet of groping, inebriated officers.

Barnes, incensed that the women had been reluctant to speak out for fear of damaging their careers, talked the situation over with a friend. But not just any friend. Barnes was talking with then-congresswoman Pat Schroeder, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"I asked her who the advocates for the military women were," Barnes recalls. "I wanted to know the name of an organization so I could join. And she said there wasn't one. She said, 'Maybe you'd better start one.'"

And so Barnes, who was admittedly "inexperienced, naive but well-meaning," set about doing just that. She hit up a number of friends--the list included such movers and shakers as Wendy Davis, former Denver City Council president Cathy Donohue, onetime Denver county clerk and recorder Arie Taylor and a number of other professional women--and invited them to a meeting in her living room.

"Susie had done some checking on Elaine Donnelly and found out that she ran the group from her basement," Davis recalls. "And Susie said, 'If she can do it, we can do it.'"

That was the start of WANDAS.
The group's original goals were to counsel individuals and, when needed, to use specific cases to affect policy change. Things didn't quite work out that way, however.

In 1994, at the urging of a number of military women who'd outlined their grievances, WANDAS lobbied Congress on a bill that would improve procedures for filing and processing sexual-discrimination and harassment complaints in the military. Barnes even produced a witness, an Air Force sergeant then serving in England, who testified about her experiences before a congressional hearing. The result was an amendment to the Military Whistleblowers' Act.

In Washington, Barnes and her friends readily admitted that the military world was completely foreign. A more savvy colleague gave them some useful advice. "You've got to get it through your skulls," Barnes remembers being told, "that the discrimination is a readiness issue, not a feminist issue, and that's the way you must speak of it. Because America needs a strong defense, and you can get further by selling it on that basis."

After all, the military needed the best person for the job--and the best person just might be a woman.

Barnes caught on fast. "An all-volunteer army can't exist without women," she explains. "Thirteen to fourteen percent of the active-duty force is women. So what we were looking at was changing a whole culture."

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