During the First World War women around the world were an
indispensable part of the war effort.
Their roles at home, in civic life, industry, nursing, and even those in military uniforms,
were extremely important to the outcome of the war.
What is the situation like now?
Are women valued in the part they play in modern warfare?
Are they enjoying the same rights as men when serving in combat?
Women Fighters in History
Throughout human history, soldiers and military personnel have been mostly male figures. Occasionally an exceptional woman comes up in military leadership roles, such as Queen Boudicca, who led a revolution against the Romans in Britain, or Joan of Arc, who led the French against the British. In some wars, for example the American Civil War, women disguised themselves as men in order to fight for their country.
In recent history, we only see women in combat when they are needed, as there is a lack of men to fight. During the First World War, Russia used an all-female unit, the only country to allow women to fight in direct combat. In World War II, hundreds of thousands of women served in British and German armies. The Soviet Union had many women on the front lines serving as medical staff and political officers, and they had all-female sniper units and pilots. Women served in resistance movements in Communist Russia and Yugoslavia. After 1945, combat roles for women were halted and their services all but forgotten.
After WWII, women served in the army in only 3 countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo trained 150 women as para-commandos in 1967. During the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1999, a quarter of Eritrean soldiers were women. Israel became the first country to have mandatory conscription for women in 1948.
Women in the Military Now
In 1989, Canada ordered the full integration of women in the Canadian Armed Forces. Israel didn’t make this leap until 2000, and Australia still hasn’t, but plans to open up combat jobs to women in 2017.
The first country to allow women to serve on submarines was Norway in 1985, and this year they included women in their compulsory military service. Sweden has similarly opened up to female roles, but so far only 5.5% of officers are women. New Zealand has no restrictions at all on roles for women, and so far women have made it into all sectors except the Special Air Service.
Sri Lanka is open to female roles, but there are many limitations in ‘direct combat’ duties. Turkish women have voluntarily taken part in defending their country throughout Turkey’s history, including during WWI. Turkish independence was won with the heroism of Turkish women. Today, women are employed in the Turkish Armed Forces, because of ‘’needing qualified women officers in suitable branches and ranks’’. They serve all sectors except armour, infantry and submarines.
In WWI and WWII women served in the United States army as Army Nurse Corps and Women’s Army Corps. They could enlist but could not have direct combat roles. In 1994 the military officially banned women from serving in combat, but in 2013 the ban was lifted.
In the UK, women serve in the army but are still banned from frontline infantry roles, although this ban may be lifted soon. Some other European states also allow women to enter their armed forces.
Objections Against Women in the Military
There are several concerns about women serving in combat. The first is physical concerns, as size and weight means their performance is often limited to two thirds that of men, and they have around 30% less aerobic capacity, meaning reduced endurance. The smaller bones are more prone to break, and the body is not as adept at handling g-forces, although it’s actually less likely for women to black out during high g-force than men.
Psychological concerns include the disruption of the unity of the combat unit on the front-lines, that romantic relations may disrupt fighting ability, and the fear that women may deliberately become pregnant to escape combat duties. Many argue that placing women in risky areas where they may be captured, tortured and sexually assaulted is unacceptable. But it’s not only sexual assault during capture they have to worry about. In Iraq it is more likely that a female soldier will be raped by one of her own than an insurgent.
Tactical issues are less to do with the women’s capabilities, and more about the behaviour of men after seeing a female soldier injured. The Israel Defense Forces experienced soldiers becoming uncontrollable, protective, aggressive and disruptive to the unit’s effectiveness. The worry is that infantrymen may put rescuing a female soldier at a higher priority than completing the mission. In Iraq and Afghanistan, problems have occurred with Islamic militants refusing to surrender to female soldiers.
Another debate has raged around letting women serve on submarines. Obstacles include needing to segregate accommodation and facilities on the tiny vessels, meaning a much higher cost. In 2000 the ban was lifted on women serving on submarines in Canada, but it wasn’t until 2013 women were finally allowed to serve on US submarines.
Finally, the simple argument has been made by those who follow the tradition of only men enlisting, maintaining traditional gender roles. This has been experienced again and again by women in the armed forces being labelled either ‘‘a bitch, a slut or a lesbian’’ and experiencing harassment by their male peers.
Why it is Important for Women to Serve in the Military?
Women have fought and died in every war in history. Whether on the front lines or at home, women have suffered as much as men, if not more. They have led me in battle, been prisoners of war, fired lethal weapons, and operated the most sophisticated technology. They serve in combat aircraft and ships. Many women have already met the military’s physical and mental standards, and are trained fighters and leaders.
With today’s battlefields against the war on terror, there are no more frontlines, and every unit regardless of size or mission may potentially engage with the enemy. Reducing opportunities for women in the military will only handicap military operations.
Major Eleanor Taylor was the first woman to lead an infantry company into combat, and she serves in the Canadian military. She says ‘’my personal experience has been that the (principles) of leadership and team building apply equally to women as to men. As long as you protect qualification standards and give no impression that anyone is getting a free ride, integration, while not without bumps, will be much less dramatic than people envision.’’
The idea that women will become deliberately pregnant is a ridiculous one: why would they become pregnant when they just willingly joined the army? Restrictions on which jobs women can and cannot apply for limits commanders when picking the best person for the job. The view that women may hurt ‘unit cohesion’ is solely based on objectifying women, and the argument that women are too weak to fight has been proven false by many women already serving in the army.
Why do Women Want to Serve in the Military?
According to the US Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), although women technically aren’t supposed to serve in front line combat roles, they have been unofficially doing just that. In modern warfare, there is no traditional ‘front-line’.
In 2008 sociologist Jennifer M. Silva found that women have many reasons for wanting military training. It is an opportunity for them to ‘’be strong, assertive and skillful’’ and a way of escaping the narrow, traditional views of femininity. In spite of this, female cadets are constantly left feeling that they have to prove themselves to be as capable as men.
Women also have an advantage in training other women in police forces, empowering women to have a role in their community outside the home. They can inspire other women and girls from their home countries to follow their dreams and serve their country. Women should have the equal right to help protect their nation.
And, perhaps an even more simple reason, is that a role in the army is an excellent career choice. Recruits are constantly learning new skills, and learning more about their own capabilities. There are huge opportunities for career advancement and further training. Many women find it perfectly acceptable and enjoyable, just as men do, to serve in the army and keep a family life back home.