Historiann has posted about a very Whiggish article in the New York Times about how changes in warfare have supposedly improved women’s rights by creating more opportunities for female combat soldiers. As Ann points out, there are lots of things wrong with this article. She concentrates on the fact that similar things were said during the Gulf War in 1991 but that the supposed progress evaporated after the war. As some of the commenters suggest, the idea that women used to be incapable of fighting but that changing technology has made things easier it possible for them is basically a lie. Joshua Goldstein’s book War and Gender (which I’ve posted about before) presented lots of empirical evidence to demolish the assumption that women are smaller and weaker than men. This is true on average, but in practice most people aren’t exactly average. In fact statistics for size and strength for men and women are distributed along bell curves which overlap. The biggest, strongest women are bigger and stronger than the smallest, weakest men. Goldstein estimated that in a major war, if combat soldiers were recruited purely by ability and not by gender then about 10-15% of combat soldiers should be female. This has clearly not been the case in reality. Goldstein found that some form of war exists in almost every culture, and that women have nearly always been formally excluded from active combat roles. There are a few exceptions (eg the Dahomey in West Africa in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the Second World War) but these just prove that women can fight, and therefore their exclusion in most other cultures must be down to gender ideology. Or not quite. Because Goldstein sees the gendering of combat roles as being too universal to be down to gender ideology, which would be expected to be culturally specific. This is where I part company with Goldstein. While War and Gender is a really important book which needs to be read by anyone interested in either war or gender (or just by anyone), it has its limitations, which we need to move on from.
As I said in my previous post, Goldstein’s book didn’t pay enough attention to cultural differences within the west over the last several hundred years. This is understandable in such an ambitious and wide-ranging book. To cover so much ground he necessarily had to abstract things and omit lots of details. Previously I pointed out that the ideal of the warrior as the epitome of masculinity doesn’t seem to hold for 17th century England. Since then I’ve become more aware that although women have nearly always been excluded from combat roles, this exclusion hasn’t always been the same. In contrast to the Whig idea of progress, there might actually have been more opportunities for women to participate in combat in the past. Brilliana Harley and the Countess of Derby were both elite women who effectively commanded garrisons when their houses were besieged by the enemy during the English Civil War. In these cases their social status, and particularly their position of authority over the household in the absence of their husbands, overrode normal gender roles. In practice there isn’t necessarily that much difference between commanding servants and commanding soldiers. As I said in my last Horses, War and Gender post, in War in England Barbara Donagan mentions that codes of conduct from the English Civil War protected women from violence unless they took up arms, which suggests that it was considered to be a real possibility. One of the excuses the New Model Army gave for the massacre of the “Irish whores” at Naseby in 1645 was that they were carrying knives, and were therefore seen as a threat (although the women who were killed and mutilated there probably weren’t Irish or whores or likely to kill anyone). In Warrior Women and Popular Balladry (pp. 128-8), Diane Dugaw pointed out that boundaries between combat and non-combat roles got very blurred by the presence of women on board Royal Navy ships in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although women were eligible for campaign medals for service at the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar, they were denied them on the grounds that it would leave the army and navy “exposed to innumerable applications” from women! Dugaw also showed that the cross-dressing warrior woman wasn’t just a fictional character in ballads. In the early-modern period many women actually did disguise themselves as men and join the army or navy. That they got away with it suggests that perceptions of gender were very different in that period, and that clothes were probably more important than the body. Although the ballads make breasts (often lily white) an important signifier of gender, they also suggest that it was easy to keep them hidden. Later ballads from the 19th century show an increasing preoccupation with the slenderness of waists and fingers, which suggests that perceptions of the body were changing.
Things had changed even more by the First World War. There was a new obsession with biology: new recruits to the British Army had to undergo a thorough medical examination and were graded on a scale of fitness for combat. This would have made it pretty much impossible for someone with female genitals to pass as a man. But despite this new fashion for empirical scientific measurements of the soldier’s body, the idea that women were weak and unsuitable for combat was much more dominant than it had been 100 years earlier. Remembering the evidence presented by Goldstein, this is the opposite of what you might expect. It’s easy to imagine a Whiggish narrative of the progress of science and reason, where a “medieval” superstition that women are “the weaker vessel” gives way in the face of hard empirical evidence, allowing women to achieve equality and men to congratulate themselves on how progressive they are. No such thing in reality, of course. During the First World War the idea that women might serve in combat roles in the British Army was not even on the cards. It was just assumed that they couldn’t and shouldn’t. This is despite the fact that the British Army was in a desperate situation. The pre-war regular army was very small, while the Territorial Force was under strength and hardly trained to fight at anything above company level. During the war the army suffered unprecedented casualties and expanded at an unprecedented rate to an unprecedented size. In 1916 Britain introduced universal conscription for the first time ever. Things got so bad that the minimum height requirement was reduced from 5’3” to 5’1”. Short men were initially recruited into special “bantam battalions”, and later mixed in with normal battalions. Men who were unfit for front line combat were still retained by the army when possible, often for manual labour or home service. For example, the service record of my ancestor Thomas Wenham shows that he was only 5’2” tall, and so wasn’t called up for service immediately. When he did get into combat he was wounded in the head, which rendered him unfit for further combat, so he went on to serve with the Royal Defence Corps in Britain, then went back to France with the Labour Corps to guard prisoners of war. It’s quite likely that some of the women who went to work in factories as part of the war effort (something which is often seen as a Whiggish step forward) would have been at least as able to fight as many of the men who served in the army.
So the exclusion of women from combat roles in Britain is constant at a certain level of abstraction, but if we look closer we can see that it changed quite a lot. The way that it fluctuates reminds me of Judith Bennett’s concept of patriarchal equilibrium. Bennett used the wage gap to illustrate this: in medieval England the average woman’s wage was about 75% of the average man’s wage, and it’s about the same now. The wage gap hasn’t always stayed the same, but it has fluctuated within a certain range: women’s wages have always been between 50% and 75% of men’s wages. Equal opportunities legislation hasn’t fundamentally changed this situation. The exact size of the gap often changes, but it’s always true that women’s wages are less than men’s wages. Bennett came up with patriarchal equilibrium to describe, and start to explain, this situation. Although some things might improve for women in some ways, the system always manages to readjust so that women never quite achieve equality. This idea is exactly what we need to allow us to move beyond Goldstein’s model of universal exclusion of women from combat. Things can change, but in a more fundamental way they stay the same. The gendering of combat roles isn’t just analogous to patriarchal equilibrium: it’s part of the same thing, and possibly a very important part. Historiann is right on the money when she says:
Mark my words: the U.S. won’t give up on sex segregation in the military so easily and quietly as the officers quoted in the New York Times say they have, because military service, and in particular combat service, is the one thing that differentiates men from women citizens. Of course, this difference is for the most part theoretical, since the vast majority of Americans don’t in fact serve in the military, but a whole aircraft carrier’s worth of assumptions and privileges rests on this slender thread.
The exclusion of women from combat roles justifies male privilege. The really neat ideological trick here is that being exempt from combat duty can be portrayed as a privilege itself, but it’s a false privilege. The male British soldier can say, “we have to go off and fight in the muddy trenches and get killed and wounded, while you get to sit at home and enjoy unprecedented freedoms and have sex with American sailors and airmen”. The perception that men suffer in wars for the benefit of women, and that women are spared the suffering, is not true and has all sorts of dangerous consequences. The rhetoric of remembrance says that we’re all (men and women alike) supposed to be grateful to the men (and a few women, but fewer than there could have been) who fought for our freedoms, but in Britain during the First World War women were not allowed to vote, abortions were illegal, and marital rape was not illegal. The men who joined up in 1914 were probably not fighting for gender equality (and any argument that British victory led to greater equality logically depends on Whiggish assumptions about inevitable progress). It could be argued that the outbreak of war in 1914 was a setback for the suffragettes, because everyone “knew” that women couldn’t fight, therefore why should they be given the same rights as the men who were fighting?
There must be plenty more scope to look for examples of how the exclusion of women from combat roles is used to justify male privilege. I’m not claiming that war is the key to patriarchal equilibrium, but it has to be one of the things which contributes to long term gender inequality.
- Judith M. Bennett, History Matters (University of Pennsylvania Press, September 2007).
- Barbara Donagan, War in England 1642-1649 (OUP Oxford, February 2008).
- Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1996).
- Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender (CUP: Cambridge, 2003).