Putting Australian Women on the Frontline of War: A Transnational Historical Perspective


by Andrew Barnao

Since time immemorial, war has been considered an integral part of the history of humankind. It is generally perceived as a male affair with women being on the sidelines of the action. On 27 September 2011, however, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) would be removing sex discrimination against women from front-line combat roles. He cited the 110-year history of the armed forces when declaring it is time to bring it up to date with the equal opportunity demands of Australian society by removing restrictions limiting women from taking certain roles in the military. Currently, women are able to work in 93 percent of roles in the Australian military forces. The remaining 7 percent off limits essentially relates to infantry or ‘combat duties’ defined as ‘requiring a person to commit or to participate directly in the commission of an act of violence against an adversary in time of war’. Barriers to these roles will be removed over the next five years and replaced by a rule that, for all roles, personnel will be chosen on the basis of physical requirements for the job and not upon their gender. This is a significant cultural change for the military in the light of the history of women in war.

The role of women in the armed forces has been in a process of transformation throughout the twentieth century, and still is ongoing. Yet, there is a long tradition of women serving alongside men in the armed forces around the world, and that their contribution has not been limited to nursing or administrative duties. This does not mean, however, that the presence of women in the armed forces is accepted widely by the general public.

Those arguing against allowing women into combat roles generally claim it simply is not a climate suitable for females. Arguments and reasons given against women serving in combat roles or the military are numerous but can be succinctly summarised as follows: that women are not physically strong enough to handle combat; that women captured in battle could be raped and abused; that society wouldn’t accept women coming back in body bags; that women lose too much training and duty time from pregnancy; that unit cohesion cannot be maintained in co-ed units; that women in combat roles will suffer ‘disproportionate casualties’ compared to male soldiers; that the culture of the military and war is established around men and involves perverse sexuality, racist terms, bullying and intimidation designed to consolidate the boundary between a group of mates and ‘the enemy’, and allowing women into front line jobs would undermine the male bonding processes of mateship and the effective fighting capacities of the defence forces.

Comparisons have been drawn in scientific literature about the respective physical strengths of each gender and in social or psychological studies about how men and women may interact in combat together. Perspectives from a historical point of view, however, are remarkably sparse. Yet, historical perspectives are crucial because they give us precedents for how putting Australian women on the front lines in the twentiy-first century may impact on the ADF. That there appears to be few historical studies is surprising because, as far back as 62 A.D., we can trace examples of women at war when the legendary Queen Boudicca led an uprising in ancient Britain against the Romans. Another is Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake for daring to wear men’s clothing and leading French Troops into battle. The twentieth century yields many more useful examples of women in war and what they did when placed in combat situations.

During the First World War, some 2000 Russian women volunteered to form a ‘battalion of death’ and were sent to fight imperial Germany. One day in 1917, 300 of these women went over the top of the trenches alongside 400 male comrades and together they overran the German trenches. The women apparently were able to keep functioning in the heat of battle, and were able to adhere to military discipline. These women advanced under fire, retreated under fire, and helped provide that crucial element of leadership by which other nearby units were spurred into action. After the action they were described as ‘no longer women, but soldiers’.

The standout example of the twentieth century occurred during the Second World War. In the Soviet Union large numbers of women joined the ranks of the Soviet Army. Around 8 percent, or one million of the total armed forces of the Red Army, in fact, were women. It is estimated that approximately 500,000 of them fought on the front lines. Many were trained in all-female units. About a third of the total number of women serving were given additional instruction in mortars, light and heavy machine guns, or automatic rifles. Another 300,000 served in AA units and performed all functions in the batteries, including firing the guns. Joshua Goldstein, in War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, analyses war reports of the Soviet military. Goldstein states that the reports indicate that often the women were able to fulfil the physical strength and endurance requirements of their combat roles and demonstrated similar capabilities to their male comrades. Those who were unable to do so were relegated to support roles. The issue of fraternization also was important to the Soviets. Romantic and sexual relationships developed, although there was generally an unwritten rule in most regiments that if it became awkward then one of the partners would be reassigned to a different unit. Some officers, however, took ‘front line wives’ from among their female personnel. Whereas often this was consensual, there were a number of cases in which women were coerced because of the powerful position held by the male Russian officer. These cases appear to have been few and far between and it is said that promiscuity among the Soviet women was relatively low. In terms of threating to undermine unit cohesion, the men and women serving together in the Red Army regarded each other as ‘comrades’, and, officially, improper behaviour towards women serving was sternly frowned upon.

Goldstein also addresses the pressing issue of women being able to kill in battle. As combatants are, of course, required to engage in the act of killing, it was generally regarded that only men are capable of killing. For Soviet women, the first kill was always described as the hardest but the feeling usually passed quickly and most subsequently became capable soliders. In terms of combat performance, historians find it difficult to assess as they often have only anecdotal evidence with which to work. The general consensus, however, is that Soviet women acted courageously and dependably in even the most trying circumstances. Their role was recognised as a vital part of the Soviet success in the war.

An important issue for Soviet women soldiers was the possibility of becoming a prisoner of war (POW). Apparently many Soviet women serving in the Red Army kept a special cartridge of ammunition for themselves as they would have rather died than be taken prisoner by Germans after hearing rumours of being subjected to sexual violence. Evidence suggests, however, the Germans preferred shooting Red Army women summarily rather sending them to POW camps or torturing them.

After the war, Soviet military women were demobilized in 1945 by a decree and thereafter very few soviet women continued to serve in the military. This seems to have been a political decision rather than anything else, designed to deliberately play down the role of women in combat and reinsert the role of women as traditional homekeepers, which was their ‘primary duty’. Moscow clearly did not consider the wartime integration of women into the military as being a catalyst for fostering long-range changes in the gender roles of Soviet society. Accordingly, the use of women in the Soviet context has been described as ‘the willingness of the military to use women for the most dangerous missions in the emergency of a desperate struggle and then to demobilize them after the emergency is over’. The Soviet Union was not the only country to utilize women in combat during the war.

American women served as front-line Army nurses often near or within the line of fire, serving in the Mediterranean, European and Pacific theatres of war. Over 350,000 American women volunteered to serve in the armed forces WWII. Of these, 70 were held as POWs and 1,600 were awarded Distinguished Service Medals for bravery under fire. Almost 30,000 served in front-line combat zones across every American battlefield of war. Young women who previously had never ventured beyond than their local nursing home now travelled around the world to put their lives in the line of fire. Their work is acknowledged as having been on par with male medics during the war.¬

The United Kingdom also began using women in 1941 in its Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). These women were soldiers in ‘protected’ Anti-Aircraft units; protected because they were immune from capture and their living conditions could be closely monitored. To help emphasize the importance of women serving in these units in order to free up more men to fight on the European continent, Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary served in one such brigade. Security was tight on these facts and there were no leaks whatever until long after the war. By September 1943, over 56,000 British women were working for AA Command, most in units close to London. The much-feared sex scandals never materialized in the searchlight or battery units.

US General Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, the chief of command of Western Allied forces in Europe, conducted a report to compare women with men doing identical jobs. British AA leaders concluded that women were inferior as ‘spotters’, comparable as ‘predictors’ and superior as ‘height finders’. Overall, it was determined that women excelled in several areas, were comparable in others, and were inferior in a few. Phrasing the question in terms of men versus women, however, is highly misleading. Rather, the British set up mixed units so they could shoot down more enemy planes and buzz bombs, while making most efficient use of the limited human resources available. The effectiveness of a military unit depends on the team performance; team members who were better at lugging heavy shells could be assigned to that task, while those who were better at reading the dials were doing that. The effectiveness of a team was not the average of each person measured but a composite of how well each specialized task was performed, plus the synergy that came from leadership, morale and unit cohesion. The mixed units received excellent reports.

It was not equal opportunity or feminism that spurred women in combat roles, but the lack of sufficient ‘manpower’ to fight World War II, which served as the catalyst for Britons, Americans and Soviets alike. Once the situation was dire enough, necessity could overcome cultural and social ramifications and beliefs.

At the time of its establishment in 1948, the modern state of Israel excluded women from front-line duties. Nonetheless, they still occupy a considerable number of close-to-battle roles and the nation has a strong ongoing commitment to utilise women in its military forces. Women in Israel can serve in many of the same roles that women currently serve in the Australian military. Earlier this year, the Israeli Defence Force conducted a psychological experiment on their troops in combat-similar conditions. A sample of 450 Israeli Defence Forces soldiers participated in the study during their four-month military basic training. Female soldiers in both combat and non-combat units displayed higher stress levels than male soldiers. Interestingly, though, female soldiers in combat roles were more similar to their male counterparts than to female non-combat soldiers in several of the psychological measures used, but felt ‘more commitment and challenge’. Combat women understandably sought more medical assistance than non-combat women.

Since 2000, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has been placing female marines into front-line roles despite the Defence Department’s explicit exclusion of women from combat zones. For example, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Cope was in charge of a supply column of 44 marines. In her role as the officer in charge of these men, for 68 days Cope was in a combat situation under vedry real danger of being attacked. There are many other women currently serving in not only the US Armed Forces, but also in other International Security Assistance Force participating nations. For instance, female soldiers were and still are being utilized effectively on the frontlines to work with women within the communities for they which are responsible. This is important as many of the soldiers currently serving describe the entire nation as being a potential combat situation with road-side explosive devices, ambushes and unexpected mortar attacks common, yet women continue to serve alongside their male counterparts.

Since 1899, women have been serving in the Australian Defence Force and their roles have been gradually—albeit very slowly—expanding. Women were amalgamated into the mainstream army and air force in the 1970s and the navy in the 1980s. In 1983, Australia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) but with reservations, including support for the exclusion of women from combat-realted duties and direct combat roles. The result of these exemptions was that women who had been employed in combat related duties, such as certain transport duties in the Royal Australian Corps of Transport and in the Royal Australian Engineers in the Army, were unable to continue to be employed in these roles. In December 1992, Paul Keating’s Labor Government announced that women could serve in all army, navy and air force units, except direct combat units. Then, in 2000, John Howard’s Coalition Government marked International Women’s Day with the announcement that Australia would be partially withdrawing its reservation to CEDAW relating to combat related duties. After decades of debate about whether women should be able to fill every role in the defence forces, Julia Gillard’s Labor Government has now decided that it finally will happen over the next five years.

The issue of women in combat has generated a vast amount of literature drawing on law, biology, and psychology but history has had surprisingly little input into this important debate. The above historical examples show us that the demarcation lines between an individual’s gender, contemporary social ideas and ability to be a member of the armed forces are not as clear cut as might be assumed. It is undeniable that throughout history women have played a role—however small—in war when they themselves were not the main protagonists. Furthermore, although not covered here, women have always played a support or a ‘home front’ role to war that needs to be recognised. The female presence in contemporary armies remains minor (only 3 percent of the world’s armed forces personnel are women) but it is growing and that is the result of a long narrowing of the divide between femininity and conflict. War and the violence associated with it are not a matter of gender, but first and foremost of individuals, and so we must regard aggression as a human activity and not solely a male affair. Women are capable of warfare, too.

Selected further reading:

Selected further reading: Australian Defence Force,‘ Women in the Australian defence Force Two Studies’, Australian Government, 16 November 1996, retrieved 30 September 2011 http://www.defence.gov.au/fr/reports/womenadf.pdf

Campbell, D’ann, ‘Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union’, Journal of Military History, vol. 57, 1993, pp. 301-323.

Cox, Eva, ‘Women in the frontline… fighting dinosaurs in the ADF’, The Conversation, 12 april 2011, retrieved 28 September 2011 < http://theconversation.edu.au/women-in-the-frontline-fighting-dinosaurs-in-the-adf-766

‘Defence Force changes will see women in frontline combat’, ABC News Online, 27 September 2011, retrieved 30 September 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/09/27/3327190.htm

Goldstein, J, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Kirk, Alexandra, ‘Australia allows women to serve in frontline roles’ , ABC News Online, 27 September 2011, retrieved 28 September 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2011/s3327037.htm

Lapkin, Ted, ‘Weakening the ADF in the name of equality’, ABC News Online, 29 June 2011, retrieved 30 September 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2776294.html

Lurie, O, R Tarrasch, Ran Yanovich & Dan Moran, ‘Psychological aspects of the integration of women into combat roles’, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 50, 2011, pp. 305–309.

Pennington, Reina, ‘Offensive Women: Women in Combat in the Red Army in the Second World War’, Journal of Military History, vol. 74, 2010, pp. 775- 820.

Reese, R R, The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army: 1917-1991, Routledge, New York, 2003.

Sheldon, Sara, The Few, The Proud: Women Marine’s in harm’s way, Praeger Security International, Westport, 2008.

Sheridan, Greg, ‘Women have no place in Combat’, The Australian Online, 29 September 2011, retrieved 29 September 2011, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/women-have-no-place-in-combat/story-e6frgd0x-1226149860334

Wadham, Ben, ‘The Dark Side of Mateship in Australian Military Ranks’, Crikey, 6 April 2011, retrieved 28 September 2011, http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/04/06/the-dark-side-of-mateship-in-australian-military-ranks/

© APH Network and contributors 2011. All rights reserved.

Citation: Andrew Barnao, Putting Australian Women on the Frontline of War: A Transnational Historical Perspective.
Australian Policy and History. October 2011

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