Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

No place for women? Women on the front line

Historically the participation of women in warfare as direct combatants has been very rare. Until recently, women have been prohibited from enlisting in the army, and most nations continue to prohibit women from serving as front-line troops. The presence of women on the battlefield has traditionally been consigned to medical and support roles. From the ancient world to the medieval period rarely did a woman bear arms; warfare was seen as being the sole domain and heritage of men. However, as humanity approached the 20th century far more women took up arms than ever before.

During the American civil war an estimated 400 women were able to fight on the front line by disguising themselves as men. Several women by circumstance were able to fight in the First World War; with the case of Flora Sandra, originally a Red Cross nurse from England, arguably being the most famous. In her case, she was able to fight by being accepted into the Serbian Army in Albania; an impossibility had she joined the British army.

The Second World War undoubtedly saw the greatest ever participation of women in war to date due to the sheer demands of manpower both on the front line and on the home front. In the Second World War both British and American women were permitted to participate in the armed forces, but not in direct combat. Women operated and maintained anti-aircraft weaponry ensuring that it was fit for operation. However, they were not allowed to fire it, denying women the opportunity to kill enemy combatants.

The Soviet Union allowed women to serve in combat roles during the Second World War unlike America and Britain. Soviet women comprised eight per cent of their armed forces, and had a direct role in combat. Women were permitted to drive tanks and pilot fighter planes and bombers. Most striking were the women snipers that harassed the Germans on the Easter Front. The Soviets celebrated women’s participation in combat in order to demonstrate their progressive socialist ideals. 100,000 Soviet women received medals, including 91 who received the hero of the Soviet Union medal, the highest award for valour.

In the post-war era several countries, such as Norway and New Zealand, now permit women to participate fully in combat, demonstrating changing attitudes. However, across the globe the majority of warfare is still conducted by men. The notable exception to this is Israel where women have fought in the numerous Arab-Israeli wars. Until 2013 the US has had a ban on women serving in combat. However, women were still allowed a role in the military and deployment in war zones, which have led to their accidental experience of warfare. Jessica Lynch, for instance, whilst serving as a unit supply specialist during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was attacked and captured by Iraqi soldiers. She was eventually freed by US Special Forces.

Over the course of the past 150 years women have experienced direct combat; a departure from their previous role as purely medical aids. However, war remains a predominately male sphere with few countries permitting women to fight.

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