Was the “Women Can’t Fight” Headline a Mistake? Would You Use It Again?

A lawyer, Richard Mattersdorff, who read the recent post about “A Three-Word Headline From 1979 That Continues to Cause Headaches for the Writer of the Story” asks two lawyerly questions: So was the headline a mistake? Would you use it again?

The headline certainly was the Washingtonian’s doing—the writer, Jim Webb, didn’t know “Women Can’t Fight” would appear on his 7,000 word story and he wasn’t happy about it. Was it a mistake? It certainly brought attention to the story and increased its readership by many thousands.

But like 1975’s New York Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” it probably distilled the essence of the story to the undrinkable 200 proof level.

A more accurate headline on Webb’s story might have said: “Military Combat, Based on My Experience in Vietnam, Is Debased and Vicious and Women Don’t Belong There.” He was saying he didn’t think women should be placed in combat situations, not that they couldn’t do it, as the headline asserted.

In his story published 38 years ago, Webb went on to say much more about women at the Naval Academy and in the Navy and as the years have gone by he has backtracked on some of it. Still, women graduates of the Naval Academy have effectively blocked Webb, who went on to be Secretary of the Navy and a United State Senator, from being honored as a distinguished graduate of the academy because of the 1979 story.

In retrospect, I would have thought harder about whether the three-word headline was accurate and fair but I think I still would have used it. What I would have changed is the deck that ran with the “Women Can’t Fight” headline:

“Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win wars,” Douglas MacArthur told the 1962 West Point class. In this story, a Naval Academy graduate, a combat veteran of Vietnam, says the country’s fighting mission is being corrupted, with grave consequences to the national defense. One of the main problems, he says, is women.

The deck threw more gasoline on the fire instead of telling the reader more clearly what Webb was trying to say.

Would a different headline or better deck in 1979 have given Webb some cover in today’s gender wars? Probably not. The headline did give the story some staying power—good for the Washingtonian, not so good for Jim Webb.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    “But like 1975’s New York Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” it probably distilled the essence of the story to the undrinkable 200 proof level.”

    Excellent line.

    I’m glad you think you still would have used the headline.


    Dear Jack,

    How often did you see wouldn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t in a headline?

    For reasons at best obscure, those words were semi-verboten to newspaper/magazine headline writers of the 20th century because they were often too long to fit, look pedantically weird, are a less common part of speech, etc.

    Whereas “can’t” is common, clear, and in Jim Webb’s case raised a ruckus because he didn’t say they “can’t” because he knew better.

    He said they can, but they shouldn’t under the circumstances.

    Would WOMEN SHOULDN’T FIGHT have been a more accurate representation?

    I think yes, but somehow, even today, “shouldn’t” looks (not means) graphically wrong to me and I can understand why it was avoided.

    In parts of America, there is a phrase of deep disrespect for “shuddah, woodah, cuddah” which are all possibilities and not at all certainties, like straight-forward, positively negative “can’t”

    Today it might be: ARE WOMEN TOO SMART TO BE WASTED IN WAR? 10 male reasons why females can’t be cannon fodder like men.

    ah, hindsight.



    P.S. I noticed you used “would” instead of “will” in your headline in an interrogatory sense, which was acceptable to my copy desk editors. bc

  4. Richard Mattersdorff says

    It takes very little sophistication — maybe complete ignorance plus 1 — to understand that a magazine or newspaper story cannot be evaluated by its headline. I doubt that’s the problem with the graduate-degreed anti-Webb officers.

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