History is replete with stories of women in battle. The ancient Greeks, for example, told of Amazons so dedicated to warfare that each cut off one breast to improve her ability to shoot and throw spears. The British recount tales of Queen Boudicca, famous for leading a revolt against the Romans in A.D. 61 and sacking London, Colchester, and Verulamium after the death of her husband the king. And Americans can point to colonist Margaret Corbin who, during the British attack on Fort Washington in the Revolutionary War, operated a cannon until she was seriously wounded.
For the most part, however, the history of women in battle is a combination of myth and exaggeration, mixed in with a few true accounts of unique women. Indeed, throughout history most societies have banned women from military service. Those women who did fight were often forced by circumstances into positions of military leadership, as was Boudicca, or were conscripted only when men were in short supply, as was the case in the Soviet Union during World War II. In the absence of these extreme circumstances, most societies have restricted women from serving in the military to the same extent that they have restricted women from other male-dominated occupations.
These restrictions are largely based upon each society’s perceptions of the appropriate roles for men and women. In ancient Greece and Rome and in the Jewish and Christian faiths, women were perceived as nurturers and care givers in the home, while men were viewed as protectors of the home. In general, all of these cultures held women to be subordinate to men. In accordance with Aristotle’s assertion that women should be passive and obedient, Greek women were legally considered to be minors, had few rights, were not educated, and were encouraged to remain at home, caring for their children. Neither Greek nor Roman women could vote or hold public office, and both the early Jewish and Christian faiths prevented women from teaching or preaching. None of these cultures even considered the possibility of women serving as professional soldiers.
The subordination of women continued into the Middle Ages, when women had no legal rights and were not educated. During the Renaissance, however, women began to be allowed access to education, and more and more women were involved in managing business and property. Women such as Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Isabella of Spain became powerful, influential leaders. Progress in women’s rights was still slow, though, and the traditional view of women as dependent and domestic continued to be upheld by most philosophers of the age.
When European colonists came to the United States, they brought this Western philosophy concerning the roles of men and women with them. Women in most states were denied the right to vote and own property, and, with few exceptions, participated only as nurses in the Revolutionary War. Americans believed the appropriate role for women was domestic, and this is reflected in author Fanny Kemble’s journal entry in the late 1830s: “Maids must be wives and mothers to fulfill the entire and holiest end of woman’s being.”
Gradually, laws began to change in support of women’s rights. Reforms in child custody, divorce, and property rights came about in the mid-1800s. Another sign of progress was the 1848 Seneca Falls convention on the rights of women, which sparked the women’s suffrage movement. Despite the actions of this new movement, women’s activities were still largely confined to caring for husband, children, and home. In 1869, Sarah Ann Sewell, author of Woman and the Times We Live In, wrote: “It is a man’s place to rule, and a woman’s to yield. He must be held up as the head of the house, and it is her duty to bend so unmurmuringly to his wishes, that the rest of the household will follow her example, and treat him with the due respect his sex demands.”
The women’s movement in the United States strove to change such attitudes, and succeeded in gaining women the right to vote in 1919. However, society continued to strictly define the appropriate roles for men and women. With the exception of poor women (who have always worked), women in general continued to be discouraged from working outside the home. This social pressure and discrimination against women continued during World War I. Although many women worked for the armed forces during the war, they were denied military rank and benefits and were prevented from remaining in the military once the war ended.
Women’s roles changed abruptly in both the domestic and military arenas with the onset of World War II. While American involvement in World War I had lasted just over a year, the fouryear- long World War II proved to be a severe drain on the nation’s resources. As more and more men were drafted into the military, the country desperately needed women to fill men’s positions in factories and other workplaces. The nation’s need opened up opportunities for women, who were no longer restricted to domestic duties. As author Marjorie Rosen observed: “On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Johnny got his gun. America mobilized. And social roles shifted with a speed that would have sent Wonder Woman into paroxysms of power pride.” Women were recruited for noncombat military service, and by the end of the war were granted military rank and benefits.
While the expansion of women’s opportunities during World War II brought about much change in the perception of women’s abilities, after the war the nation quickly went back to its narrow definition of male and female roles. As men returned from the war seeking jobs, women were forced out of the work force and back into the home. While most women relinquished their jobs to returning veterans, others refused. Many of these women were discriminated against. This discrimination was also evident in the military, where women were organized into their own institutions, such as the Women’s Army Corps, rather than being integrated with men. During the post-war era, society seemed uncertain as to the appropriate role for women. “The status of women in our society is fraught with contradictions and confusion,” author Mirra Komarovsky stated in 1953. This confusion especially applied to occupations that seemed to require the “male” characteristics of strength and aggressiveness. In the 1950s and 1960s, women were still prohibited from serving alongside men as firefighters, police officers, and construction workers.
These occupations finally opened up during the 1970s, when social and economic changes and the growing women’s movement combined to increase opportunities for women. Roles became much less defined as women became 45 percent of the work force and men increased their involvement in child care and household duties. The military reflected this social change when it abolished the all-female service organizations and integrated men and women in the mid-1970s. While at first the positions open to women were limited, they gradually expanded so that by 1990, women comprised 11 percent of the U.S. armed forces and were allowed to serve in nearly all noncombat positions. In 1991, Congress passed a bill allowing Air Force servicewomen to fly in combat missions.
Expanding women’s roles in society has not entirely erased the controversy concerning women in the military, however. While many Americans have accepted women as soldiers and even as combat pilots, there still exists much debate about whether women should serve in combat positions. A 1991 poll revealed the nation’s split: 52 percent of those surveyed said women should be assigned to ground-combat troops, while 44 percent said they should not. For many Americans, the battlefield remains a unique workplace, where soldiers are required not only to be physically strong and emotionally aggressive, but also brutal and capable of killing. Many Americans are still unprepared to acknowledge these qualities in women. As social anthropologist Sharon Macdonald explains, “Where war is defined as a male activity, and where highly-valued masculine characteristics are often associated with war, a female warrior must be seen as inherently unsettling to the social order.” Perhaps more than any other issue, the question of women in combat exposes the nation’s continued confusion about the appropriate roles for men and women.
Examining the Issues
Women in the Military attempts to address the controversy concerning women in the military from a variety of perspectives. The opinions of scholars, defense experts, politicians, and male and female soldiers are presented in four chapters that debate the issues of women in the military, women in combat, servicewomen and discrimination, and the experiences of servicewomen of other nations. Examining these issues can lead to a greater understanding of how Americans perceive women and how these perceptions influence the nation’s opinions concerning women in the military.