Women in Military History

KCL PhD Student Jenna Byers reflects on the gendering of military history.

I recently attended a conference celebrating the contributions of women to the study of history, both as historians and as historical subjects. In a conference attended predominantly by women, I was not surprised to be in a minority as a military historian. I was, however, surprised by a statement midway through the day, made by a member of the audience, who suggested that women tend to study cultural and social history because they are easier than economic or political history.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved.

For those of you who are unsure as to the distinctions between these types of history, essentially, cultural and social history are about how people behaved, how they filled their homes, or educated their children, while economic and political history are about how much money the government had to spend and what they wanted to spend it on. Now, I for one would not claim that social and cultural history are easier to study, because anyone who looks at these has to be as much a detective as they are a historian, extrapolating from physical items, while economic and political historians have any number of written sources to rely on. But this wasn’t why I felt compelled to speak out at this conference.

No, I wanted to point out that, in fact, women don’t choose social and cultural history because they’re easier than other kinds of history; we often choose these things because that’s what everyone tells us we should do. Since I was in primary school, I have been interested in the Second World War and, since I was in primary school, I have had people trying to convince me not to be. Telling people later on that I intended to study War Studies led almost invariably to the question, “Why do you want to study war?” with a subtle emphasis on the word ‘you’. After all, why would a woman want to study war?

By and large, military history has been and remains the reserve of men; it has been about the battles, the glory, the heroic figures and the bonds forged on the battlefield, bonds which, it is tacitly assumed, women cannot understand because we cannot participate in this form of bonding, being banned from the front lines of conflict in most major armies. Military history is about men doing one of the most traditionally masculine things in history; fighting with other men for territory or riches or glory. And, owing to the fact that the majority of military historians are male, military history has become, in many ways, isolated from other forms of history, tucked away in a masculine man-cave in the basement of university history departments.

Rina Levinson - a pilot in the IDF

Rina Levinson – a pilot in the IDF

Men have always feared the inclusion of women on the front lines of combat, and we can see this by looking at one case study, that of the Israeli Defence Force. It might surprise some of you to learn that, up until the late 1940’s, the IDF allowed women to fight on the front lines. However, in 1948 they reversed this decision, not because the women were struggling to fulfil their role, but because the men working with those women were having trouble. The problem was that male soldiers were developing protective feelings towards their female comrades, because these women represented, for them, a home front that was safe and peaceful and far away from where they currently were. This somewhat patronising treatment of a fellow soldier only really became an issue if these female troops were wounded on the battlefield, as this led to several instances of male soldiers losing control and going on guilt-filled rampages which increased the risk of injury to themselves and to their comrades. So the IDF decided that it would be easier to pull women off the front lines than to re-educate society to believe that women might not actually need men to protect them in this way.

This societal outlook, which says that men should be shielding women from the horrors of war, extends down to those of us who choose to study conflict. I guarantee that any woman who has ever announced her intention to pursue War Studies has encountered at least one man asking, “Why does a pretty thing like you want to go and study a thing like that?” Because society still tells women that war is a dirty, awful business and we should leave it for the boys, while simultaneously telling the boys to man up and get stuck into the mess. So women don’t study war, which is a great loss for everyone.

Dr James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) - a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

Dr James Barry [left] (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) – a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved. We don’t yet know what women can bring to the table, with all of our cultural and social historical experience, all we do know is that it is not 1948 anymore; there are biographies of female fighter aces from the German Reich, there are stories about Dr James Barry who lived for fifty years as a male surgeon in the British armed forces, there are all-female regiments currently fighting ISIS. We can no longer pretend that women have no place in military history, we can no longer ignore their contribution to conflicts of the past, and we can no longer allow ourselves to be surprised by the notion that a woman might be interested in studying these things.