Female Combat

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 2 of War and Gender]

For information about this book, and a discussion forum on Women in Combat, click below:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)


Photo, WASPs, WWII
US WASP pilots with B-17, WWII
Conclusion to Chapter 2:

The evidence from large-scale organized female participation through various types of gender integration through the participation of individual women confirms Hypothesis 2. When women have found their way into combat, they have generally performed about as well as most men have. Women in combat support roles, furthermore, have had little trouble fitting into military organizations, and have held their own when circumstances occasionally placed them in combat (especially in guerrilla wars). They can fight; they can kill. Yet exceptional individual women who wanted to go to war had to either overcome stubborn resistance from men or adopt male disguise.

Overall, the war system works to push women away from killing roles except in the most dire emergencies such as when defending their homes and children. This does not necessarily protect women participants from harm. Women have faced great danger on the battlefield, whether as nurses in front-line trenches, as powder-carriers aboard ships and in artillery units, or as helicopter pilots ferrying male troops around. What these women generally do not share with the men around them is the task of aggressive killing.

Most striking are the very rare historical cases in which larger numbers of women were mobilized into combat a substantial number of the healthy, strong young women in a population. In the 19th century Dahomey Kingdom and the Soviet Union of World War II, women made up a nontrivial minority of the military, and clearly contributed to the war effort. They were a military asset which, when mobilized, increased the effectiveness of the military in combat, in a few cases even turning the tide of battle.

Women's physical strength, while less than men's on average, has been adequate to many combat situations from piloting to sniping to firing machine guns. One recurring argument of those opposed to women in combat that the women would be unable to drag wounded comrades from the battlefield under fire is refuted by the record of women nurses' doing so. Women's supposedly lower levels of aggressiveness, and their nurturing nature, have been, historically, no obstacle to many women's participation in combat. Furthermore, contrary to the idea that women are too soft-hearted to kill, not only did Soviet snipers coolly shoot down dozens of German soldiers, but in various cases women took the lead in cruelty and torture, especially of prisoners. The next chapter explores men's and women's bodies to see how these historical patterns square with claimed biological gender differences in such areas as strength and aggression.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)