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A Gender(less) Study of War? Women as Front-Line Soldiers



'It is night. The darkness is more pervasive with no moon to pierce its depth. The sound of running footsteps comes from a figure clad in dark clothing. They take the stairs two at a time up to the walkway that bridges the gap between two train station platforms. The figure runs along the platform and kneels down, they untie the cord of a duffel bag and begin pulling weapon parts from it. Sharp clicks are heard as the weapon is made complete. The shine of bullets penetrate the surrounding darkness as they are being placed into a magazine, the magazine is then loaded into the weapon and unfaltering hands expertly cock the weapon. A small high-pitched grunt of effort belies the fact a woman is behind this deadly sniper rifle, a look of determination on her tired face...'


Such a scene is taken from a dramatisation of female resistance fighters in France in the Second World War. Such positions for women during the war were deemed as unique, a necessity created by war. It has taken almost 75 years since then for women to be allowed to enter the historically male dominated sphere of front line combat. The debate on Women in Ground Close Combat (WGCC) roles continues despite women now being allowed to join the British Army as a front-line soldier in an infantry regiment or a tank regiment. Yet, it seems the predominant perspectives rely on stressing the limitations in a woman’s physical ability, the difficulty of integrating women into established combat units or whether society can accept a woman in a role that requires her to take life. In this post I hope to ground the debate firmly within socio-cultural understandings of gender, which I believe has been lacking and utilise rigorous historical study to broaden perspectives on this topic. Indeed, applying a gender analysis is key to understanding visible gender hierarchies and gender-based expectations during war and how these are carried forward or undermined after war.

It is important here to note that scholarly work on war and conflict has previously avoided the idea that gender has any place in war, research that does, seems to associate it with women and femininity, usually framing women in secondary or limited roles.[1]While this, to an extent, historically accurate due the roles women have played in recent conflicts and in the world wars of the 20thCentury, there are and have been exceptions dating from the ancient world to contemporary society. Legends of Amazon warriors and Scythian princesses fighting on horseback and their combat skills have been subject to great historical discussion while the Napoleonic wars saw the conscription of young men into large armies that created economic issues that allowed women to share the burden placed on a nation by a state of war. Hundreds of women served on both sides in the American Civil War as scouts and soldiers, while the 20thCentury saw the greatest mobilisation of women in the armed services during the First and Second World Wars. Furthermore, British women served with the Special Operations Executive as agents, soldiers and leaders alongside the French and Spanish Maqui forces from 1940 to the end of the war, while the Polish uprising of 1944 had women serving as soldiers in the resistance.

Therefore, in war and conflict we can see the classic gendered roles subverted. To understand this, we must understand that the potential for war matters more than its actual outbreak. These persistent gendered roles in war apply to all societies because of the pervasiveness of war across all cultures. Yet, it is this pervasiveness of war that has seen countless historical examples from the premodern to the modern eras where women have actively undertaken combat roles in order to defend their nation. Thus, it can be argued that the applied gender roles in war, contests greatly with the diversity of gendered roles a war actually produces. There is then sexist discrimination that seems to be a constant theme throughout the WGCC debate despite the historical success of women as combatants. This is not unique, generally women perform countless roles during war, be they militarily, medical or economic but their contribution is often ignored or hidden in favour of returning to a 'societal norm'. Such historical absence produces a perspective that reinforces the notion that men do the fighting and women ‘stay at home’.

Consequently, these gendered roles, play an integral part in moulding ordinary people to become trained soldiers as actors in the state of war. While the patriarchal gender order varies in different societies, in most contemporary societies men and boys are imbued with certain traits; competitiveness, physical strength and assertiveness, thus, men are predisposed to the masculine qualities suggested by society[2]. Moreover, society in war further polarises gender relations. Men are designated as the protector while women are seen as passive or victims. War pushes these masculine and feminine societal roles to its extremes revealing tension between the mobilisation of women as active agents in warfare due and the societal ‘contract’ that men take life while women give it[3]. In addition, even before this polarisation, gender is exacerbated by a state of war; toys, games, film, media and television all contribute to the establishment and categorisation of feminine and masculine roles in society[4].

So, in the event a conventional state on state war occurs, necessity will dictate and override these gendered societal roles as was the case in Poland during The Second World War and many occupied European countries. Equally, asymmetrical warfare has also produced opportunities for women to act as effective agents of guerrilla warfare, as well as, in the more recent campaigns, as medics and RMP’s or as combat troops in the case of the Israeli Defence Force. Furthermore, a woman’s physiology does not seem to negate their effectiveness in the wartime roles they assumed and continue to assume. While the science behind the physiological differences of men and women are indisputable, historical analysis shows us that women although physically weaker have been effective in many differing combat situations. Even in some cases an advantage, such as the female snipers in the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Their smaller physiological stature was an advantage when stalking and hiding in the ruins, enabling them to kill German soldiers and officers without detection.

Ultimately, I suggest that women have proven that they can do the job, historically, physiologically and psychologically. However, it appears the sociocultural barriers and traditional gendered notions of the categorisation of masculinity and femininity seems to persistently pervade the WGCC debate. What the debate needs is to transcend the mainstream perspectives on WGCC and accept that women can and have worked with success in a previously male dominated theatre of war. By applying a gender and historical analysis the advantages would ground the debate in a more academic forum and perhaps produce a greater depth and breadth to the current arguments.

[1]Laura Sjoberg, Gender, War, And Conflict (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), pp. 3-5.

[2]Cynthia Cockburn, "War And Security, Women And Gender: An Overview Of The Issues", Gender & Development, 21.3 (2013), 433-452 <https://doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2013.846632>. [3] Penny Summerfield and Nicole Crockett, "‘You Weren't Taught That With The Welding’: Lessons In Sexuality In The Second World War", Women's History Review, 1.3 (1992), 435-454 <https://doi.org/10.1080/09612029200200015>. [4]Cynthia Cockburn, "War And Security, Women And Gender: An Overview Of The Issues", Gender & Development, 21.3 (2013), 433-452 <https://doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2013.846632>.

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