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Why fighting is women's business too

Published 27 Aug 2023
Isabella Hollewand

A global tradition of female service in militaries has been too easily dismissed, an AIIA Queensland event has been told.

Sarah Percy, pictured, made this argument while presenting her new book Forgotten Warriors: A History of Women on the Front Line to AIIA members and guests on August 23 in Brisbane.

She is an associate professor at The University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies and specialises in military history, mercenaries, private security, and organised crime. She is the author of Regulating Private Security (2006) and a broadcaster for the ABC.

Modern histories of Europe and North America position militaries as quintessentially male fields. Associate Professor Percy challenges this assumption in her account which treats women’s contributions with the same gravity as “conventional’’ military histories. As she discovers a long tradition of female participation, the question turns to why military histories so often dismiss the roles of women. Moreover, why have Western liberal democracies, who ostensibly strive for gender equality, until recently actively excluded women from military service?

Associate Professor Percy begins answering these questions by shedding light on women’s historical role in combat. Contrary to popular stereotypes, women throughout history have demonstrated the leadership, physical capability, and valour necessary to survive on a battlefield. In early modern Europe for example, women provided crucial logistical support as “camp followers’’ who pillaged supplies, provided food and water to combatants in the thick of fighting, and even took over combat positions when male warriors fell. Women were also expected to participate actively in siege warfare as defenders of their cities and households. During this period, the presence of a woman in combat was not abnormal.

She also highlights specific examples of female military generals such as the legendary Joan of Arc, Boudicca, the Celtic queen who led a bloody revolt against Roman rule in ancient Britain, and Queen Njinga, who fought Portuguese colonisers and is revered today as the “Mother of Angola’’. The strategic skill and capability of these formidable women was too easily diminished by their contemporaries. Her book is filled with similar accounts of capability, from women who disguised themselves to fight in revolutionary wars to the all-female regiment of royal guards which served the Kingdom of Dahomey, in western Africa, until the late 19th Century. These stories demonstrate that women are not inherently unsuited to military roles.

So, what changed? The ideal of the “delicate’’ housewife in the 20th century saw attitudes towards female military participation shift. During the First and Second World Wars, even as the total mobilisation of society was under way, Western governments were anxious to demarcate the “home front’’ and “battlefront’’ – confining women “safely’’ to the former. Even in the Soviet Union, where servicewomen could participate, women were banned from marching in parades or discussing their experiences in combat. From the 1950s onwards the exclusion of women from military service was formalised with bans throughout the Western world.

Associate Professor Percy concluded her presentation by emphasising the lasting impact this suppression of women has had. While today women are no longer excluded from military service, it is still perceived as a male field. The implicit message to women is that, despite the advances of the feminist movement, there is still one job of crucial importance that men must to do for them. Like any other profession, modern militaries should strive for gender equality.