When you think of war, you think of men, right? Not so fast. Although male soldiers have dominated wars both past and present, women also have played an integral part in combat warfare throughout history. And we continue to play significant and sometimes controversial roles both in making war and in keeping peace.
Hundreds of years ago, women warriors fought alongside men, assuming a wide range of ranks from foot soldier to high commander. Celtic warriors like Boudicca and Grace O’Malley, along with more well-known historic figures including Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Lysistrata, and Cleopatra were all instrumental in planning and executing wars on behalf of their home nations. In their book Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq, authors Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles explore how women's presence in conflicts both large and small has influenced the tides of war. The book opens with a telling quote from the mayor of Montmartre, who witnessed women fighting in France's republican uprising of 1871, saying, “They fought like devils. Far better than the men.”
But by the 19th century—when that rebellion took place—the presence of women warriors was the exception, not the rule. Hundreds of years earlier, the influence of patriarchy and the acceptability of misogyny had begun to grow, and women were forced out of the ranks and relegated to caretaker roles. Removing women from front-line positions was a clear and decisive way to strip us of power, a power that had previously been shared between genders. Whether expressed through religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam; through a social-military system like the Roman or Chinese Empire; or as a philosophy like Confucianism, the message to women everywhere was clear: Your power is limited. Women weren't permitted to plan or fight in wars for centuries, and took a backseat while their male counterparts defended their nations.
Only towards the end of the twentieth century have women such as Golda Meir, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton regained their place in councils of war, reclaiming a right that their sisters enjoyed from the dawn of recorded time. And today, with changes in military policy and shifts in thinking, the number of women taking part in modern-day battles is rising.
Approximately 14% of members of the present-day U.S. military are women, and more women are joining the armed forces all the time. The nature of combat in modern conflicts – the 360 degree battlefield – has meant that women, who were banned from combat roles until recently, are now able to step into combat positions. As you read his somewhere a woman is cleaning her rifle, packing her ammunition, and preparing to go to battle.
A recent CNN article shared some telling statistics:
- More than 200,000 women are in the active-duty military, including 69 generals and admirals.
- As of 2011, 74,000 women served in the Army, 53,000 in the Navy, 62,000 in the Air Force and 14,000 in the Marine Corps.
- Nearly 167,000 women were in the enlisted ranks, 36,000 in the officer corps
- Enlisted women made up 2.7% of the military's front-line units.
Although these numbers indicate gender equality progress, it also means that more and more women are returning home wounded. And because gender equality is a work in progress, some of these wounded women are not formally recognized as combat veterans. A few brave women capture the spotlight, like Colonel Martha McSally, who flew A-10 ground attack missions in Afghanistan, and became the first woman to command a United States Air Force combat squadron. Major Tammy Duckworth lost both of her legs when her Army helicopter was shot down, and went on to campaign for veterans' rights as a United States senator. But for every woman soldier who is recognized for her accomplishments, dozens more go unacknowledged.
Nevertheless, more brave women are joining the armed forces every day, proving that we are ready, willing, and able to fight and die for our countries. We are ready to take our place on the front lines to demonstrate our bravery and skill alongside our male counterparts. We will fight harder and longer and better until women soldiers are once again seen as equal to men. So long as war goes on, we will, too.