Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision to allow women to serve in combat roles has sparked debate throughout the country. Some concerns being raised are over whether political pressure will mount to lower requirements for females. Others worry about the social impact of having a woman imbedded in primarily male outposts. Some raise questions about the unique physical dangers placed on women in combat zones. On the other hand, women around the world have been involved in combat for centuries.
Several countries, including Canada, Russia, Germany, and Poland have no restrictions on the roles that women can fill in the military. In some countries, such as the U.K., France, and until recently the U.S., women are only restricted from “active combat roles” and submarines. Some countries even have a long history of women soldiers.
In World War II, the Red Army of Russia had women serving as tank crew, infantry, snipers, and military police. Between 1942 and 1945, 12% of the Red Air Force’s fighter pilots were female, including many aces. In Britain, Churchill passed the National Service Act (No 2) allowing the conscription of women. Britain’s Special Operations Executive trained 418 female agents to work for European resistance networks (119 of which died, three received the George Cross, two posthumously).
Often women acted as medics, especially in Britain during WWI. During the war, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) operated field hospitals, ambulances, soup kitchens, and troop canteens. Mari Chisholm and Elsie Knocker worked as medics on the front line, albeit against British regulations. Mrs. Frances Bell in the Boer War of 1899-1902 received a Victoria Cross from the queen, but the award was never gazette for women were not eligible.
Even centuries ago, women were fighting on the front line, often in disguise. In revolutionary America, Robert Shurtliff (Deborah Sampson) of Massachusetts served in the Continental Army and was wounded twice in the Revolutionary War. She dug a musket ball out of her own leg so as to not be found out by a medic. Private Clarke in 17th century Britain won renown and served in the same regiment as her husband for 9 years, until she was found out due to the birth of her son. She was commemorated in the ballad, “The Gallant She-Soldier.” During the Peninsular war, Spanish women guerrillas fought alongside Wellington and Britain.
The most famous female warrior is probably St. Joan of Arc, the patron saint of soldiers. In 1429, she was given a small army with which she raised the siege of Orleans. She was later captured by England, and burned at the stake as a heretic, sorceress, and adulteress. The church later nullified the heresy trial and in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by Pope Benedict XV.
Currently in the U.S., women make up about 14% of active-duty military personnel. In Iraq and Afghanistan, 152 women soldiers were killed. For some time women have been fighter pilots and support staff. In effect, many female soldiers already have front line experience. For example, Turner and Ivanov of Oregon’s 41st brigade were embedded in the Afghan National Army (ANA) as field medics. They have been involved in firefights and saved soldiers’ lives during combat. In total, 290,000 women have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million.
The long term impact of this policy change will not be seen for some time. Its success will depend greatly on other policies, and the requirements asked of female enlistees. How this will impact military culture is also unknown. In all likelihood, not many women will be able to meet the physical requirements to fight on the front line. Some women, however, might.
The Christian Science Monitor, Women Allowed in Combat: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2013/0123/Women-allowed-in-combat-Will-that-mean-it-s-less-safe-for-men-video
Sisters in Arms, History of Women in Combat: http://sistersinarms.ca/history/history-of-women-in-combat/
Catholic Online, St. Joan of Arc: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=295#
Info Please, A History of Women in the U.S. Military: http://www.infoplease.com/us/military/women-history.html
The Digerati Life, Traditional Jobs for Men and Women and The Gender Divide: http://www.thedigeratilife.com/blog/index.php/2007/05/29/traditional-jobs-for-men-and-women-the-gender-divide/
CBS News, As Gender Roles Change, are Men Out of Step? http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-57454755/as-gender-roles-change-are-men-out-of-step/