When looking at history, it could be argued that the biggest force for change for women in history is war. War has actually pushed societies, especially the United States, toward equality of the genders. At first glance, this seems backwards since war is perceived as such a masculine activity. How does war actually push toward equality between men and women?
In order to answer this question, this paper will start by giving some historical perspective showing the roles women have played in various wars and battles throughout history, starting with mythological times, then moving to Ancient Greece and Rome, then through the Middle Ages, then through the Crusades and all the way to World War I and World War II. There will be a large focus put on World War II and how women’s lives all through the world were changed forever because of this war. The effects of this war can still be felt in society today – especially when looking at women’s roles in society.
After this history of women in wartime, there will be a status check on where the United States is now in terms of equality in the armed forces. And finally, it will lead into the future and where the world is headed when it comes to women in fighting roles. As of now, women have attained everything except being allowed in direct combat roles and thus being included in the draft. There are two strong sides for and against this issue and both will be explored to give a good basis for a hypothesis for the roles of women in war in the future.
Though not much is known of these Ancient women, there are many historical accounts of women fighting long before people were discussing gender equality and women’s rights. As far back as 1300BC there are depictions of Hittite women warriors. In addition, the Bible describes Deborah, the Judge, as a war leader. There is also history about Fa Mulan, a woman who fought in the Chinese army. There are a few accounts of ancient Vietnamese rebels and other ancient warrior queens (Saunders, Nicky). Beyond women being involved in the fighting of wars and battles, they have always been a guiding force resisting war, through protests and such. Even long ago the idea of women fighting against war was present in the ancient comedy Lysistrata in which women refused sex to men if they went off to war (Rebick, Judy). Figures 1 and 2 show a depiction of Aristotle’s ancient comedy.
Figure 1. Characters from the ancient play Lysistrata.
Figure 2. Another depiction of Aristotle's play.
In Greek mythology there is a legendary tribe of women warriors called the Amazons. See Figure 3 for a depiction of the Amazons fighting. This tribe of warrior women is thought to be based on the Scythians (women from Turkey or Libya) (Mayor, Adrienne). Very little is known about the Amazons which is why there is so much controversy about the actual existence of them. Their original settlement was in the black sea region, but when the Greeks went to settle there, no Amazons were found. There is a Greek myth to explain the disappearance of these warriors from the black sea region. Supposedly Hercules led an expedition through the Amazon land in order to obtain the girdle of the queen of the Amazons, Queen Hippolyte. During this expedition he conquered all of the Amazons. Although most of the information about the Amazons is mythological, there has been archaeological evidence found just recently to support the existence of this tribe of women. But, there is still a lot left to find out about these legendary women (Ancient Greek Civilizations).
Some scholars even believe that the Amazons were actually male Persian soldiers who dressed like women in battle. While others like Plutarch, a Greek historian, concluded that the Amazons were merely women fighting alongside men, not an entire race of women. But the legends depict the Amazons as being a race completely of women who survived by having “contact” with men from outside lands. They only kept the female children they bore and sent to male ones away to live with their fathers. These female children were brought up to be one and only one thing – a warrior. Their main weapon was the bow, and they were said to have their left breast seared during childhood in order to use the bow more easily. In addition the Amazons supposedly could tame and ride horses long before anyone in Greece acquired this skill. Some scholars have even theorized that the Centaurs, the legendary half human-half horse warriors of Greek mythology were actually descriptions of Amazons on horseback (Ancient Greek Civilizations).
Legend says there were two queens of the Amazons, one who ruled over battle and warfare and one who ruled over domestic affairs. These female warriors fought in many battles, including the Trojan Wars. During the Trojan Wars, Quintus Smyrnaeus wrote about the Amazons:
“In the pure rapture of triumph the Amazons charged, and with anguished groans and shrieks the Greeks perished, their manhood withered by the women from the fierce and untamed northlands. Like Goddesses amidst earth born heroes the Amazons pursued their reeling foes, dashed them down, cut them apart, and, scoffing, tossed them through the air - till the Greek formations dissolved in consternation.” (Ancient Greek Civilizations)
Figure 3. Penthesilea leading the Amazons – Christine de Pisan – c 1460 (Saunders, Nicky)
There are also many women from Ancient Greece, long after the Amazons were allegedly alive and fighting, who were involved in battles and wars. For one, Arachidamia was a Spartan princess who led female troops during the 3rd century against Pyrrhus’ siege of Lacedemon. Amastris was a woman from Heracluria. She succeeded in establishing her own city-state by conquering and uniting four settlements. Also, in the 5th Century, the warrior poet Telessilla defended the city of Argos by rallying women with war songs.
There are many legends of strong women who helped in the war effort during the Trojan Wars, such as the Amazons. However, not all of them fought, but their roles as women in society still changed because of wartime. For one, Clytemnestra ruled while her husband, King Agamemnon was away fighting. A woman would not usually be allowed to rule, but the war caused the need for women to expand their roles in the community (The major women involved . . . the Trojan War). This trend of women’s roles expanding during wartime continues throughout history.
Another example of warrior women in Greek history happened around 480 BC. Artemisia I was a female ruler of the Greek city-state of Halicarnassus (Female Single Combat Club). She was also an advisor to Xerxes who was the ruler of the Persian Empire. She assisted Xerxes in his naval attacks on the Greeks by commanding a force of warships (Women in Warfare).
There have always been images of ancient female goddesses and warriors who were just as, if not stronger than the men around them. The Romans especially had many female goddesses who were portrayed in forceful roles. For one, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was often portrayed being armored and in battles. See Figure 4 for a portrayal of Athena.
Figure 4. Athena. Temple of Aphaia in Aegina. (Female Single Combat Club)
Fulvia, the wife of Marcus Antonius, was a Roman matrona known for being a very ambitious woman and for being extremely politically active. She was the heiress to the Gracchi state because her grandfather was Tiberius Gracchus. In addition to this, she was the first non-mythological woman to be represented on Roman coins. Fulvia was also a leader and organized and led an uprising against Octavian. Fulvia died in 40 BC (Women in Warfare).
In 61 AD Queen Boudicca, who was a female Celtic chieftain in Britain, led an uprising of a number of Celtic tribes against the occupying Roman forces. During this uprising she sacked and burned modern day London and St. Albans. There are a few other legendary Celtic women warriors, namely Medb of Ireland, Aife of Aba, and Queen Scathach of Skye (Saunders, Nicky).
There are historical accounts of women as Roman gladiators from Tacitus’ Annals in 63 AD about Nero. There are also accounts of female gladiators in one of Statius’ poems during Emperor Domitian’s time in 88 AD (Female Single Combat Club). See Figure 5. Women were also venatores, who fought wild animals in the Roman arena according to the writings of Martial and Cassius Dio. There was also a woman who fought against other men in chariot fights. But, in 200 AD Emperor Alexander Severus prohibited women from fighting in the arena (Saunders, Nicky). However, many women did not follow this edict. This is the first known of many “rules” prohibiting women from fighting that have occurred throughout history. This begins the trend toward warrior women being prohibited from society, thus explaining why it has been so hard for women to get themselves back and equal with the men, which they still are not completely.
Figure 5. Women gladiators. Ancient Roman relief. (Female Single Combat Club)
6th through 10th Centuries
Vikings and Saxons
There are many historical accounts of Viking and Saxon women warriors and female battle leaders during the 6th through 10th centuries. Saxo Grammaticus speaks of many warrior women in his “History of Danes”, as do many Viking Sagas. Three Danish women, Hetha, Visna, and Vebiorg, led companies of the Danish army. Rusilla fought against her brother to take the throne. Stikla ran away from home and became a warrior. And a few women even became pirates such as Sela and Alvid (Saunders, Nicky).
In addition to these accounts, during the 6th century an English Saxon Princess led an invasion of Jutland. In the 8th century, Queen Aethelburgh destroyed Taunton. Queen Thyra of Denmark led her army against the Germans in the 9th century. She also led the building of the Danneverke, which was a great wall that became Denmark's major form of defense for centuries. Parts of the wall still exist. In the 10th century the Lady of Mercria (also known as Aethelflaed) led her troops against the Vikings. Also, Olga of Russia was the leader for ending the revolt in which her husband had died earlier (Saunders, Nicky). All of these women warriors fought despite the fact that in 590 AD there was a law passed at the synod of Druim Ceat which barred women from military participation. But women refused to obey and the law was proved unenforceable. Yet again society tried to stop women from fighting, and some refused to obey.
Alfred the Great’s oldest daughter, Aethelflaed, was considered the best tactician of her time until she was killed in battle in 918 AD. She was a key player in uniting Mercia, conquering Wales, and subduing the Danes. And eventually she became the de facto ruler of the Mercians and Danes (Female Single Combat Club).
11th and 12th Centuries
There are numerous accounts of Aristocratic women in the 11th century who led troops into battle. A few of the better-known female warriors were: Emma Countess of Norfolk, Mathilda Countess of Tuscany, Urraca Queen of Aragon, and Teresa of Portugal (Saunders, Nicky). During the 12th century some of the Aristocratic women who were influential in battles were: Alrude Countess of Bertinoro, Queen Urraca of Aragon, and Queen Tamara of Georgia.
Also during the 12th century, the Crusades were in full force. The First Crusade, which started in 1096 and lasted for 3 years, included almost equal numbers of men and women. There were many queens who are reported as helping in battles during the Crusades, including: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castile, Marguerite de Provence, Florine of Denmark and Berengaria of Navarre. But there was a papal bull enacted in 1189 which forbid women from taking arms in the Third Crusade. This did not deter all women and a few still participated. There are records of women fighting in both the armies of the Emperor Conrad and of William Count of Poitiers (Female Single Combat Club).
13th and 14th Centuries
The basic trend continued through the 13th and 14th centuries with Aristocratic women leading armies and participating in wars. Some of the more notable women were: Isobel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, Jeanne de Danpierre Countess de Montford, Isabelle of England, and Margaret of Denmark. Margaret of Denmark became the ruler of Denmark and the nominal Queen of Norway when her son, Olaf II, died in 1387. She was elected full Queen of Norway in 1388 after she had led the Denmark army against the Norwegians and the Swedish and forced them both to leave Denmark. In 1389 she was given the Swedish throne after defeating the Swedish king and taking him prisoner. And finally in 1397 she forged the Calmar Union which united the three nations under a single ruler. She is known as the most powerful ruler in Scandinavian history (Female Single Combat Club).
Also, Nicola de la Haye is famous for defending Lincolnshire against several raids. In 1216 she was named sheriff of the town (Saunders, Nicky). Jeanne of Navarre led an army against Count de Bar. In 1346 Phillippa of Hainault led an English army of over 10,000 soldiers against the invading Scots and captured their king David Bruce. During both the 13th and 14th centuries, women were admitted to the Chivalric Order of the Dragon, the Order of Saint Anthony in Hainault, and the Order of the Garter.
15th and 16th Centuries
One of the most well known females in war history is Joan of Arc. Her picture is shown in Figure 6. She was born on January 6, 1412 and died on May 30, 1431. She is now thought of as a National heroine of France because of her efforts during the Hundred Years’ War. She has also been named a Saint in the Catholic Church. During the Hundred Years’ War she led the French army to victory against the English and recaptured Orleans. She is sometime called the Maid of Orleans because of this. She died due to her war efforts when she was captured by the English and burned at the stake in Rouen.
Figure 6. The great war heroine, Joan of Arc. (Joan of Arc)
In addition to Joan of Arc, there were some other notable women who took part in battles in the 15th century. The Bridgeport muster roll of 1457, which is a list of citizens called up for battle, listed a few women including: Alis Gare, Alis Hammel, Sally Pens, and Margaret Athyn. There are also accounts of a few women leading arms in battle such as Isabella of Lorraine. Also, a very notable woman, Jacqueline of Bavaria, who was the countess of Holland, Hainault and Zealand, became ruler of her lands at the age of 15 when her father died in 1417. The lord of Arkell, rebelled against her rule and led a revolt to overthrow her. In response, Jacqueline led an army of 300 ships and 6,000 knights and even personally led her troops in a charge against the castle gate to defeat Arkell's forces (Female Single Combat Club). In addition Maire o Ciaragain became well known for her ferocious fighting when she led Irish clans against the English.
A notable woman in the 16th century was Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer. She was born in 1526 in the town of Haarlem, in which her father was the mayor. She died by pirates in 1588. But, she is most famous for leading a group of 300 women in defense of Haarlem when the town was under siege by the Spanish (Female Single Combat Club).
Also during the 16th century, there are accounts of more women leading the charge. A group of 350 girls defended fortifications in Paris. Ameliane du Puget led a troop of women in Marseilles. Beatriz de Pardes and Maria de Estrada fought in the New World with the Conquistadors. Isabella I from Castile led her own army. And, in 1545, Lilliard from Scotland led her own army at the Battle of Ancrum in one of the Scots last victories over the English. She succeeded in killing the English commander but unfortunately lost her own life later in the battle. And, explorers in South America even reported seeing native women leading war bands (Female Single Combat Club).
17th and 18th Centuries
During the 17th century, Kit Cavanaugh, also known by some as Mother Ross, became notable for joining the military disguised as a man. She later fought openly as a woman (Saunders, Nicky). She was wounded many times in battle and was finally given a military burial when she died of old age. Also, there are accounts of more than 20 women who dressed as men and served in the British Royal Navy and marines from the 17th to the 19th centuries. One notable woman was Anne Chamberlyne who boarded her brother’s ship and fought in a battle against the French. There has even been a tablet placed on the wall of the Chelsea Old Church in London in her memory. It reads:
“In an adjoining vault lies Anne, the only daughter of Edward Chamberlyne, Doctor of Laws, born in London, the 20th January 1667, who having long declined marriage and aspiring to great achievements unusual to her sex and age, on the 30th June 1690, on board a fireship in man's clothing, as a second Pallas, chaste and fearless fought valiantly six hours against the French ...” (Female Single Combat Club)
The English Civil War gave a chance for many women to take part. For one, Blanche the Countess of Arundel, defended Wardour Castle against a Parliamentarian army. Brilliana the Countess of Harley, who was pregnant at the time, defended Brampton Castle against the King's army. Also, during the English Civil War, there were women assisting in the war effort, but not actually fighting. It would have been normal to find ordinary women during battles reloading guns and carrying powder and bullets to the front. In 1644, King Charles banned women from wearing men’s clothing in the English Civil War (Saunders, Nicky). It has also been recorded that in 1644 when the Scots army marched on Newcastle, there were women enlisted as regular soldiers.
The Jacobite Rising in Scotland occurred in 1745 and included women fighting for their beliefs. Some of these women included: Jean Cameron, Lady Anne Macintosh, and Lady Lude. The most notable female involved in wars in the 18th century was Catherine the Great of Russia. See Figure 7. She led her own army multiple times into battle.
Figure 7. Catherine the Great of Russia.
In 1795 the French government said that women were not allowed to attend political meetings, or to even meet in groups of more than five at a time (Saunders, Nicky). The “rules” of society really start banning women from any form of war or political activities at this time, and continue until women really start fighting for their rights later on.
In addition to helping the war effort by fighting and helping out the men, many women assisted in other ways, such as by being spies. There are many accounts of female spies during the Revolutionary War. For example, Lydia Barrington Darragh spied on the British in Philadelphia to help out the American officers. Also, for the other side, a woman known as “Miss Jenny” and Ann Bates spied on the Americans for the British. In 1774 Ann Trotter Bailey carried messages across enemy territory up and down the east coast. Sarah Bradlee Fulton, also known as the “mother of the Boston Tea Party” delivered multiple messages through enemy lines. A woman named Emily Geiger rode over 50 miles through British enemy territory to deliver a message to the American General Sumter (Women in War who Were Spies).
19th and 20th Centuries to Present Day
There are many more detailed records of the women at war once the 19th century is reached. This is not so much due to the fact that more women were fighting, but more due to the fact that history was recorded more accurately and is more accessible. One very well known woman in the history of women in war from this time period is Florence Nightingale. A picture of Florence Nightingale is shown in Figure 8. She was born on May 12, 1820 and died on August 13, 1910 (Women in Warfare). She is sometimes referred to as “The Lady With The Lamp” because of her efforts in the Crimean War as a nurse. She revolutionized the care of the sick soldiers, but she also revolutionized the expectation of the role of women in society. Her efforts made huge impacts on the role of women as professionals such as nurses and had a huge impact on the role of women in wartime.
Figure 8. Photograph of Florence Nightingale.
After the great strides for women nurses were made by Florence Nightingale, many more women could be found in the war effort close to the frontline assisting by fulfilling nursing duties. For example, in the American Civil War, about 10% of the nurses for both the North and the South were civilian women. Also over 1,500 civilian nurses assisted in the war effort during the Spanish-American War. All of these prominent female nurses led to the creation of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1901. In addition, the Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908 (Campbell, D’Ann). Although the women were not considered to be directly a part of the armed forces, their duties as nurses were becoming increasingly crucial to the country’s success in war.
In addition to nursing duties, there are again numerous accounts of female spies helping the war effort during this time also. For example, during the Civil War in the United States Belle Boyd spied for the Confederacy by bringing important messages across enemy lines. Also, Nancy Hart spied for the Confederacy by hanging around Federal outposts and acting like a peddlar in order to gain insight into the Union army’s strength and vulnerability. Figure 9 shows a picture of Hart (Women in War who Were Spies).
Figure 9. Picture of Confederate spy Nancy Hart. (Women in War who Were Spies)
Harriet Tubman, most well known for freeing slaves, also served during the Civil War as a soldier and a nurse. In addition, she was very instrumental in her spying for the Union army. She recruited a group of former slaves to scout the locations of rebel camps. She would report on where and when the Confederate troops were moving. Figure 10 shows a picture of Tubman (Women in War who Were Spies).
Figure 10. Well known slave liberator and Union spy Harriet Tubman. (Women in War who Were Spies)
World War I
The worldwide need for women nurses increased even more during World War I. In the United States, the number of army nurses rose to 20,000 in 1918 as compared to 400 in 1916. Great Britain expanded its military nursing auxiliary to 18,000. And Germany used the services of over 100,000 civilian women. These women were not far from battle, there were over 5,000 serving on the Western Front in order to treat gas victims. Beyond nursing, the British even enlisted about 80,000 women who served in uniform, just not in combat positions. They usually ended up doing tasks such as telephone operator in order to reprieve men from these jobs so they could go fight. In the U.S. about 11,500 women were enlisted in the Marines and Navy to handle clerical jobs. And, in Russia in 1917 the provisional government established a few all-female battalions which included over 5,000 women total. Two of these female battalions engaged in direct combat with the Germans, but suffered heavy casualties when some nearby male battalions refused to assist them. Russian women continued to be very involved in the Russian Revolution with over 80,000 women in auxiliary units (Campbell, D’Ann).
On the home front, women during WWI were needed to take on roles that were at this time traditionally outside of their gender roles. This war was one of the first (along with World War II) which really depended on industrial production for success on the battlefield. With the men fighting, women were needed to fulfill the manual labor positions in munitions factories, offices, and large hangers to build aircraft. In addition, many women were preparing clothing for soldiers. Due to this huge turn around in female participation in society after WWI, Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, and a few European Countries gave suffrage to women. And Russian women due to their involvement in the Russian Revolution and also the equality doctrines of communism were given far more rights in society than they had before WWI.
There were again female spies during World War I who helped their countries by finding out crucial information. For example, the most famous spy from WWI was a woman known as Mata Hari (short for Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod). She was a courtesan who allegedly spied on the French. She was later shot by the French after her accusations became known. But there is much controversy over whether she actually did any successful spying. Another woman who allegedly spied during WWI was Edith Cavell. See Figure 11. She was not exactly a spy, but she was working secretly with the British, French and Belgian soldiers to escape from the Germans. She housed many refugees in her house which was a nursing school. When the Germans finally found out that she had been hiding refugees (over 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers), they executed her in 1915 (Women in War who Were Spies).
Figure 11. Edith Cavell, known for secretly hiding soldiers.
World War II
AROUND THE WORLD:
The amount of involvement of women in World War II depended a lot on the leadership and culture of each country. For example, Germany and Japan were very reluctant to move women from their traditional roles whereas Russia (led by Joseph Stalin) was very willing to cross the gender lines despite what others were saying at the time. And the British fell right in the middle of these two extremes (Campbell, D’Ann).
The British, led by Winston Churchill, began registering women and requiring them to perform some sort of national service in 1941. Most British women were found doing munitions work. The British did draft over 125,000 women into the military and an additional 430,000 women volunteered. Also in nearby Scotland, over 11,000 women were employed into their national cordite factory during the war (Campbell, D’Ann).
But despite Hitler’s reluctance and traditional Nazi antifeminism, even the Germans had to give in when their manpower dwindled. By 1943 about 450,000 women had voluntarily joined auxiliary units and civilian nurse units. And by 1945 about 85% of clerical workers, accountants, interpreters, laboratory workers, and administrative workers were women. Even over 65,000 women served in AA units in Germany and some searchlight units were reported to be 90% female. But, despite these great strides made by the Germans, women were still forbidden from firing guns. The Germans saw this as going too far. For this, they looked down upon the Russians who taught their women to fire guns and fight right with the men (Campbell, D’Ann).
Soviet forces also had a significant number of women serving in the army during WWII. Over 800,000 women served in the Red Army in Russia and over half of them served on the front line. These women were trained to use machine guns and automatic rifles just like men. The 586th fighter regiment was entirely composed of female fighter pilots (Female roles in the world wars). Figure 12 shows Lilya Litvyak, Katya Budanova, and Mariya Kuznetsova who were members of the 586th regiment (Marina Raskova and the Soviet Women Pilots of World War II).
Figure 12. Soviet Fighter Aces from the Russian 586th Women's Fighter Regiment
There are also historical accounts of female snipers for the Soviets. Over 100,000 women were decorated during the war. And, to top it off, even 91 women received the highest award for valor the country gives. In Russia there were also women manning jackhammers and driving gravel trucks to help the war effort at home (Issues Tearing Our Nation’s Fabric).
World War II proved to be pivotal in the history of women all over the world. French women were very involved in the French Resistance Movement and their improved societal roles continued even after the war was over. Before WWII French women had very limited political power, but immediately afterward in 1946, women made up 5.4% of Deputies elected to the French National Assembly and 3.6% of Senators. The Resistance movement in France was initially to resist the Vichy and later to resist the Nazi regimes that entered France. Almost all French women were inspired to do their part in the war effort, from the most politically active to the least. Many women who would have never thought they’d find themselves involved politically found that the war pushed them into new roles. And those who were already very active in society found themselves even more so during the war (Halbreich, Rebecca).
Many of the French women’s actions were inspired by part of Hitler’s doctrine, known as the “Three K’s”. The K’s stand for initials of German words which confine women to maternity, the kitchen and the church. The French did not like this ideal of the Nazis at all. The active French women formed groups to help get more women involved, such as housewives and mothers. One way they became involved was by propaganda. They started publishing pamphlets and leaflets to convey the message to resist. One example was in La Femme d’Eure et Loir (the Journal of Patriotic Women) from September 20, 1943 which stated:
“We women, deprived of everything, must raise our voices, unite ourselves by district, between our co-workers at the factory, to set up committees of union and action. Let's go to the town hall and to the police station with our children to make them see the holes in their shoes, their pinafores in tatters, their coats too small. Let's go, women! Rise up!” (Halbreich, Rebecca)
After the war, many women believed that France would move quickly toward an equality between men and women. Women in France did obtain the right to vote which was a huge step at the time.
Women in Japan had huge roles during WWII and many of the social effects of the war caused Japanese women’s roles to change forever. During the war many Japanese women could be found working in coalmines, steel mills and arms factories. In fact, at Okinawa in 1945, the Japanese army drafted civilian women and used them on the front line. Although most of them were killed, the army prepared for the imminent American invasion by training many civilians, including women. After the war the economic bankruptcy in Japan caused a sort of “bankruptcy of social traditions” just so the country could get by. Many more women remained in working roles to help the survival of their families. Japan even enacted an equal pay law for men and women in 1947. This happened 16 years before the U.S. enacted a similar law. Another trend that has continued in Japan after WWII is that women are waiting longer to get married and there are less and less arranged marriages. This in turn results in more and more strong and dominant women in Japan. This would have never happened for Japanese women without the onset of WWII (Friedman, Seth).
The Israeli Defense Force was founded on May 14, 1948. There are records of at least one female combat pilot as well as many more women serving in non-combat positions. The Israelis also drafted both men and women. They are the only country that conscripts women (Women in Warfare). But, in 1950 David Ben Gurion ordered that the Israeli Army could no longer have women in the front lines. This was hard to enforce and the last woman finally left in the mid 60’s. Although Israelis had allowed women in the front lines before this, they were now banning them because of the pressures of society.
World War II was a turning point for women in the United States. War historically causes many women to gain strength and mobility. But, WWII proved to provide women with even more extensive roles than WWI had just a few years before. One of the most apparent changes due to WWII was the sudden influx of women in the military. By 1945 there were more than 250,000 women in uniform. In all, over 350,000 American women served during all of WWII. These women joined varying units including the Army Nurses Corps, the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), the Navy Nurses Corps, the Marines, the Coast Guard and most notably the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) (Rosie the Riveter and other Women World War II Heroes).
Figure 13. Recruitment poster during WWII for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp.
In May of 1942 Congress started the WAAC (see Figure 13), Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp. And in 1943 they were upgraded to the permanent Women’s Army Corp (WAC). It consisted of over 100,000 women in uniform with full military status. There were over 17,000 women overseas during WWII. And 12,000 women went overseas during the Korean War. The Women’s Army Corps primarily gave women jobs such as clerks and telephone operators that were usually filled by men. This allowed more men to get out on the battlefield (Campbell, D’Ann).
During WWII, 47,000 female nurses served in the United States Army and 11,000 in the Navy. See Figure 14 for a recruitment poster for the Navy Nurses Corps.
Figure 14. Recruitment poster for the Navy Nurses Corps.
There has been constant debate that started around the time of WWII over whether during wartime women should be drafted as nurses. This still has not gone into effect, but the debate over drafting women will come up more and more throughout history. In 1943 President Roosevelt signed a bill to allow female physicians (not merely nurses) in the military. In 1944 these nurses were promoted from auxiliary status to full officer status. Although the doctors in the army were almost all men, they were not allowed in the nursing corps until 1951. But, to get around this, men who wanted to work as nurses enlisted in the Medical Corps and served as hospital orderlies and front line medics, since women still were not allowed on the front line. One interesting twist was that the female nurses, who were officers starting in 1944, actually supervised over these male orderlies (Campbell, D’Ann). Figure 15 shows a picture of Rosemary Hogan who was a decorated Captain in the Army Nurses Corps. Of the many decorations she received during her time she received the American Defense Medal, a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and six Overseas Stripes (Fallwell, Boyd).
Figure 15. Captain in the Army Nurses Corps during WWII. (Fallwell, Boyd)
In addition to serving in the army and as nurses, there are many accounts of female journalists, photographers, and broadcasters who paved the way for future women of their profession by crossing gender lines during WWII (Women Come to the Front . . .). A book was written about a few of these female journalists during WWII. See Figure 16. A couple of the more well known reporters of WWII were Virginia Irwin of the St. Louis Dispatch who was the only female reporter to get to Berlin, and Martha Gelhorn who was the first correspondent to get to France after D-Day (Cortes, Natalie).
Figure 16. Cover of book The Women Who Wrote the War showing a few prominent female journalists.
As in most all of the countries involved in the war, the U.S. had many women filling factory jobs to make up for the loss of male workers and the need for military equipment. These female factory workers did all sorts of jobs including welding, machining, building aircrafts, fixing tanks and armament factories (totaling over 6 million women working). And after the war was over, many of these women stayed in the work force in order to help out their families and exercise their new freedoms (Rosie the Riveter and other Women World War II Heroes).
On the home front, women took up the challenge and filled the jobs that would normally have been filled with men. Over 6.3 million women moved into the workforce during WWII. For the first time in history married women outnumbered single working women. The most well known female WWII image is that of Rosie the Riveter which expressed how women really helped the war effort by working in defense factories.
One fun story about women during World War II is that of the women who started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the United States. With all the young men being drafted, including professional baseball players, baseball’s survival depended on women (Peterik, Adam). These women made huge strides for female equality, especially in the realm of sports. Prior to this, women who did play sports were mostly frowned upon and only allowed in recreational leagues, maybe. But, after the women’s professional baseball league became successful, the country started realizing that women could play sports, and could be good (Lahman, Sean).
After World War II ended, most all of the women in other countries were sent right back to the kitchen and out of the work place, despite the huge help women had been during the war effort in all countries. Most countries disbanded or drastically reduced their female military units. But in the United States permanent women’s units were kept in place. However, these women were still kept from combat roles, including infantry, armor, artillery, combat aircraft and combat warships. It can bee seen that from the end of the war to now, the United States has led the charge for females in the military.
Female involvement in WWI and WWII changed the social status and working lives for women in not only the United States, but in many other countries as well. This involvement in society has continued to expand from the end of WWII onward to the present day.
Women served in Vietnam almost exclusively as nurses. But finally by 1991 in the Gulf War, about 41,000 women served in non-combat jobs. And, in 1994 the Pentagon started actually assigning women to certain combat roles for the first time – such as high-ranking pilots.
There are many women involved in the armed forces in the U.S. now. There are a few more notable women, though. For one, in 2003 Brig. General Janice Karpinski was put in charge of the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. Also, Jessica Lynch (see Figure 17) was all over the news media for being captured. She is a private first class in the U.S. Army and her rescue marked the first rescue of an American Prisoner of War since WWII and the first ever female POW rescued (Women in Warfare).
Figure 17. Private First Class Jessica Lynch.
Women’s roles in war have always been an interesting subject. During war, no one has any problems allowing women to take traditionally “male” positions to help the country. But once the war’s over, even the women who helped the war effort by fighting are expected to give up those positions and return to domestic work. One article even described it as a sort of “cultural amnesia regarding the contributions women made during emergency situations” (Carreiras, Helena). Women have always been thought of as a personnel pool that could be used when needed to replace men, so that the men could help in combat and on the front line. But, since the early 70’s, most Western countries have begun admitting women into their armed forces, not just in the dire conditions of war. This began to occur initially because there was a shortage of qualified men and the country needed to rely on women in order to just fulfill their personnel requirements. Table 1 shows a breakdown of numbers and percentages of women in the armed forces in NATO.
Table 1. Women in NATO forces (1998/99)(*) (Carreiras, Helena)
Really there were two factors that directly led to the expansion of women in the armed forces in the U.S. One was the end of the draft and the beginning of the all-volunteer force in December of 1973. This caused more women to enter the army because it was much harder to recruit and retain men. The other factor was the heightened movement for equal rights for women at this time in history. Women are now allowed in all armed forces positions except for those that involve direct combat. Because of this, there is still a discrepancy in the different sectors of the armed forces. Women are not as prevalent in the sectors that are heavily based on combat, so they are over-represented in the air force (16% female) and not very prevalent in the marines (less than 5% female). There is a debate in the U.S. about whether National Security would be enhanced or jeopardized by adding more women to the armed forces. The nation is very divided on this issue (Burrelli, David).
Since 1972 the percentage of women in the armed forces has increased from less than 2% to 12.9% in 1995. The percentage of women is much lower in higher offices. This is thought to be most likely because women are not allowed in combat so they don’t have the credentials to achieve higher office. The highest rank a woman can achieve is Lieutenant Colonel or Commander in the Navy. There were over 1,200 women stationed in Haiti and over 1,000 in Somalia from 1992 to 1994. In addition, there were women stationed in Grenada in 1983, in Libya in 1986, in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and in Panama in 1989 (Burrelli, David).
In February of 1988 the Defense Department adopted the “risk rule” that excluded women from any units or missions if the risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture are equal to or greater than that of combat units. This excluded women from even more roles in the armed forces since those that are specifically considered “combat” may still have this risk and now women are not allowed in them in addition. Many of the jobs that are closed to women are in the Marines such as, combat engineers, infantry, and tanks. Pilot positions were closed to women until 1992. The “risk rule” was redefined on October 1, 1994. This said that women were excluded from assignment to units below brigade level. Brigade level means that the primary mission of the soldiers is to engage in direct ground combat, which includes being exposed to hostile fire and engaging in physical contact with the enemy (Burrelli, David).
Those that are in favor of allowing women in combat argue two main points. One, women cannot advance to the top in military terms without combat experience. This directly correlates to women’s rights issues since it is essentially discriminating against women from achieving the same positions men can. The second point is that it is unfair to men to exempt women from the most dangerous part of the job that almost all soldiers have to go through before achieving higher rank (Burrelli, David).
Those opposed to allowing women in combat argue that women in that close of quarters to men could impair the morale and efficiency of the men. They say that combat roles take such mental and physical strength and such “brotherhood” or teamwork that women being intermixed would alter this dynamic. They also argue that National Security could be jeopardized because women are on average less strong and less aggressive than men (Issues Tearing Our Nation’s Fabric).
Women are very divided on this issue. One idea that has been proposed is to allow those women who desire to and who meet the physical requirements to serve in combat roles. But one glaring problem with this approach is that when it comes to wartime, it seems very unfair to men that women get to choose and men just get assigned. A lot of opponents to women in combat say that keeping women out of direct fire is safeguarding the human race, but in opposition to this view, it’s not like ALL women would be fighting and dying in combat, only a few. So the real question remains, what would be the effect on the armed forces?
Conclusion and Future
Wartime is a very trying time on countries – this could especially be seen during World War II which took hold of the entire world. In these times of need, every citizen is needed to help the country just for survival. So war, although it could be described as masculine, causes societies to call upon its female citizens just as much as its male citizens. These women are called upon to do jobs that they would not normally do in order to help out the country in these times of need. What happens is that the country then finds out that women can actually perform the jobs (even the fighting) just as well, if not better than men. In addition, the women find out that they might actually like having this newfound freedom and responsibility. After the war is over, the society can never return to where it was before since everyone’s sense of what should and should not be done by each gender has changed. The gender roles have blurred. Women who participate in the actual fighting or in the military blur the lines even further. War becomes less masculine since both men and women can be involved and perform equally.
The history of wartime presented here shows that initially there was no concrete line between men and women fighting. Everyone who wanted to fight did, it did not matter if you were a man or a woman or young or old. Although mainly men did fight, women were just as likely to and were even just as fierce in battle, such as the Amazons. The segregation only started when rulers started making laws against female involvement. All through history there have been women who refused to abide by these laws, but the laws still deterred many who may have been more inclined if the laws had not been in place. This caused the trend of less and less women fighting. Not until full-scale war did these less determined women start entering the scene again (such as during World War I and World War II). Despite this, to this day women still have to fight for the right to fight. In many countries they are still not allowed to be in the military. But looking at the bright side, great strides have been made since before World War I. The only question left is will it ever be completely equal? And should it ever be completely equal?
Should women be allowed in combat roles? If so, should they be allowed in the draft? One argument is that it is not fair to men if women are not allowed in the draft, but are allowed in combat roles. But, not all women desire to be in the military or can even fulfill the physical requirements. So, the draft should not include women due to this disparity between women and men on a whole. The other argument is that women in combat with men will cause problems with the fraternity of soldiers. But, the arguments for women in combat, such as gender equality and ability to attain higher positions, are much stronger than this negative. Overall, it should be a woman’s choice and if she can fulfill the physical requirements then she’s allowed to participate in combat. Just like in the past, there were those few determined women that could and wanted to fight with the men, but they had to prove themselves. The best answer is to not make laws prohibiting women from fighting with the men, but also to not force women to fight who do not have the capabilities. Will things in society ever progress to full equality? It’s hard to say, but if things continue in the direction they are right now, perhaps one day any man or woman who wants to fight for their country will be able to without having to break down the gender role walls first. But hopefully, it won’t take another world war to fully do it.
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