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Women in combat

It’s been a big couple of weeks for equality in militaries around the world. In the US, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended (hurray!) and in Australia this week it was announced that women will now be able to serve alongside men in all frontline roles. Cue opinion columnists.

Greg Sheridan argues that women are not up to the task physically. Clive Hamilton laments the loss of women’s ‘subtle, civilising power‘ that such a move represents. Both are concerned that we not so conflate men and women’s differences that we see no difference between them. Fair enough. Celebration of femininity is key to feminist objectives.

But what annoys me about Sheridan and Hamilton’s arguments is the way they way they argue it. Both attempt to provide evidence for why women ought not to be in combat, in Sheridan’s case, that they’re not up to the task; in Hamilton’s case, that society will lose something. But these arguments do not hold true in every case. If you can provide one exception, you immediately defeat both men’s arguments.

And yet, both men tie their arguments to a broader notion of chivalry, of men protecting women and children as somehow morally right. That may not have anything to do with who is better at it. It may have more to do with how we expect gender to be performed.

Hugo Schwyzer writes of walking a female guest to her car at night even though his wife is a skilled martial artist. Even though his wife would be more ‘useful’, should an attacker come upon them, he performs the chivalrous role. It doesn’t make sense, but it does bring both of them pleasure, for him to fulfill that typically masculine role, so it’s OK, good even. It’s this pleasure, this sense of serving each other, which is important rather than who is necessarily ‘best’ for the role.

If you speak in generalities, men are generally stronger than women. But not all men are stronger than all women. Sheridan’s concern that standards will be lowered to allow women in could be argued the other way as well – what if there’s a woman for the job who is replaced by an inferior man simply because of his gender?

There’s more at stake here than the question of simply who is stronger or better and conservatives would argue their case far more strongly if they were honest about that. This is a discussion that exists at the level of values – should physical capacity be the main criteria for military service or accepted gender roles?

Categories: Tanzanian culture Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Some have argued (with more concrete findings rather than the example of walking a woman to a car) against women being introduced onto the frontline based on the end results / outcomes of ‘performance’ tests where mixed and non-mixed groups of soldiers.

    When women and men are involved in military missions / exercises, men are inclined to be ‘chivalrous’ even on a battlefield which can (not always) result in higher incidents / casualties. Women competently ‘treat’ men and other women as equals, yet when men ‘treat’ they offer greater care / treatment to women over other men even if their actions heighten risk of incidents / casualties.

    The implications of a man’s ‘chivalry’ could be destructive on a battlefield as someone or more fellow soldiers could get killed. This raises further questions. Should male soldiers learn how to do their jobs treating women and men as ‘equal soldiers’? Should men have a greater responsibility for the women they fight with? Do women and men have equal value on the battlefield? Does the end goal (that of less casualties within a battalion for example) determine whether women and men should fight together?

    Is there a case for squadrons or battalions to be made up entirely of women?

  2. I think they should see how well female soldiers (and their male colleagues) have fared in other countries.

    I think it would be to retain that particular glass ceiling if there are only a small number of women who would be suitable, just like I think a small would-be-nearly-male-anyway sporting club should be allowed to exclude women because their building only has one change room. In a war-type situation more concessions can be made to pragmatism.

    If there are enough suitable women, the door could be opened. I would put the bar at the same height as for men.

    That we need a military sector is the tragedy.

    6-7 years ago a female colleague was trying for the army. I burnt her a CD of the beep test and urged her on as shed tried pushups. I was surprised that she got in, even with the lower scores required for women.

    In that workplace the “males looking after females” dynamics got quite interesting.

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