History Of Women In Combat History Essay

Women in the Military have a history of over 4,000 years across a broad spectrum of cultures and societies. Historically, their roles have ranged from warrior women to strategy engineers, weapon manufacturers to goddesses of war, medics on the sidelines to leaders in the front lines of combat. Despite their long militant history and inspiration to literature, women in modern armed forces have sparked a highly controversial debate… especially regarding positions in the front lines.


Looking back in the long history of women in the military, one is likely to remember the great names, such as Joan of Arc, a revolution leader and martyr for France. However, women have often been overlooked and disregarded for their abilities through history, despite their participation in warfare since ancient times.


Interestingly enough, nearly every polytheistic religion that ever existed (or does exist) has a female Goddess of War. Normally, the traits are very similar; these goddesses symbolize chaos, strategy, fertility and death. Some of the most well known Goddesses of War include the Greek goddess, Athena, the Roman goddesses, Minerva and Bellona, the Egyptian goddess, Ankt… but the list continues on to over 40 individual goddesses of war in only 13 major cultures/ religions.

One of the most interesting groups of these goddesses is the legendary Amazon Women: warrior women in Classical and Greek mythology. Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus gave one of their first accounts, placing them in a region close to Scythia and Sarmatia. According to legend, this group of goddesses cut off one of their breasts so they were more capable and accurate archers, and often meddled in the war business of mankind (as Greek Gods so often did). The Amazon Warriors inspired artwork, fame, literature and legend throughout history all the way to present day. [1] 


One of the earliest women recorded for leading large scale ambush and governmental take over is Lady Fu Hao (1250-1192 BCE), the wife of the Chinese emperor Wu Ding. She led over 13,000 men into battle to end the power conflicts with the Jiang tribes and later led the invasion of the Yi, Ba, and Tu tribes. [2] Following Lady Fu Hao is a list of tens of thousands of women who led their troops into battle, fought to victory or died for their cause. In 1000s BCE, Queen Gwendolyn of England claimed victory over her own husband in battle for the throne [3] . However, Gwendolyn was not the only British queen to fight her own family for her crown. Shakespeare’s King Lear was inspired by the true story of Queen Cordelia, who personally fought in battle against her nephews and won the throne in the 700’s BCE2. Two hundred years down the road, Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae (Iranic people) defeated and killed Cyrus the Great while defending her country [4] . Around the same time, the Lady of Yue (also known as the Maiden of the Southern Forest) was such a skilled swordswoman, she was appointed by chinese King Goujian of Yue to train his army [5] . In 4th century BCE, after a Scythian prince ignored her warnings to stop incursions on her allies, a Sarmatian queen named Amage led a ban of 120 soldiers to Scythia and attacked him, killing his guards, friends, and family. Amage personally killed the prince in a sword battle, and allowed his oldest son to be the sole survivor, so long as he ruled his people in compliance with her demands [6] . After declining alliance with the tyrant, Dionysus of Syracuse in 4th century BCE, Timycha and a group of Pythagorean philosophers were attacked by Syracusian soldiers on their way to Metapontom. Instead of fleeing to escape, they stayed and fought to the death. Timycha (who was pregnant at the time) and her husband were the only survivors. When questioned as to why she refused his offer, Timycha “…bit off her own tongue and spat it at his feet in defiance” [7] . Later, in 138 BCE, the roman, Sextus Junius Brutus noted in his writings that Lusitanian women were “fighting and perishing in company with the men with such bravery that they uttered no cry even in the midst of slaughter” and that Bracari women were “bearing arms with the men, who fought never turning, never showing their backs, or uttering a cry.” [8] .


During the Medieval Ages, women continued to fight as rebels, invaders and defenders, however the number of female leaders decreased mainly because the birth of the Age of Chivalry. More and more women were seen simply as wives and mothers, and their power decreased. The culture of Medieval Europe became feudal, which in turn made women less likely to fight in any position other than in defense. Of course, this could be misleading; the Age of Chivalry in Europe could have inspired those who wrote records to dismiss many stories of successful woman warriors. An opposing theory is that during the medieval ages, monotheistic religions (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) whose moral codes and infrastructure repressed women from positions of power prevailed in the majority of Europe and parts of the Middle East. Meanwhile, places that were not influenced by the European feudal culture or new popular monotheistic religion (i.e. India, Asia and Africa) maintained the pattern of women leading and fighting on the battlefield.

In the later Medieval Ages, however, a few women started to take leading roles on the European battlefield. One of the few women remembered for her militant ingenuity is Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) who directed combat to defend the papacy [9] . In 1326, Isabella of France invaded England alongside Roger de Mortimer and overthrew King Edward II, appointing her son Edward III as king, and herself and de Mortimer as regents [10] . King Edward III claimed himself to be the rightful heir of the French throne as well as England, thus sparking the Hundred Years War. Eighty six years after the crowning of Edward III, one of the most prominent women in military history was born. Joan of Arc grew up in the farming fields of France. When she was 12, she began to hear voices of saints who told her to drive out the English. Soon, she was leading a full-fledged revolt against the grip of England. Joan of Arc was tried by the English government for witchcraft and heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431. She was proven innocent in her 1456 posthumous trial conducted by Pope Callixtus III, and later deemed a martyr and a saint [11] .


One of the most militaristically powerful women in history was Mandukhai Khatun, who commanded the entire Mongol Empire and its armies in battle against Oriat rebels [12] . In the 1500s, Sikhism was founded and is now the 5th largest organized religion in the world [13] . Interestingly, one of its main principles is equality for women, including the ability to participate in combat and warfare. In the mid-1500’s, Amina, Queen of the Hausa Empire in modern day Niger, commanded an army of over 20,000 soldiers [14] . In the late 1600’s many female pirates in the Caribbean Sea (including Ann Dieu-Le-Veut) became infamous for their hostility and fighting skills [15] . In the 17th century, a ban of 100 Sikh women fought against the Mughals. Their leader, Bibi Dalair Kaur was killed and is considered a martyr. During the 17th century, Chinese female warriors Shen Yunying, Gao Guiying and Qin Liangyu commanded several of their own armies [16] / [17] / [18] . From the mid-1700s to 1894, the Dahomey Kingdom of west Africa was run under an all female regiment called the Dahomey Amazons [19] . In 1697, New England Colonist, Hannah Dustin was captured with many other prisoners by the Abenake tribe during a raid. She killed ten of her captors in their sleep, and saved many already-scalped fellow prisoners [20] . Hannah Snell, who, under the guise of a man, had become a Royal Marine, had her Military service officially recognized and was granted a pension for her duties in 1750 [21] . During the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson adopted the identity of her deceased brother, ‘Robert Shurtliff’ and served for three years in the Revolutionary War. She cut a musket ball and shrapnel out of her own upper thigh so no doctor would uncover her secret. Later, she was found out and honorably discharged at West Point [22] .

350,000 American women served during World War II, 16 of which were killed in combat. An additional 59,000 served in the American Army Nurse Corps, which both trained and deployed nurses around the world [23] . During WWII, 800,000 women served in the Soviet Military, 70% of whom participated in direct combat. The first Turkish female aviator, Sabiha Gokcen (March 22 1913- March 22, 2001) became the first female combat pilot in the world [24] . Following suit in 1941, pilots Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love petitioned that women be able to fly in the airforce in non-combat situations so as to make all male pilots more available for combat [25] . The same year, American Feminists who believed that women should be able to fight established the Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In 1943, they dropped the “auxiliary” part, and were officially adopted as a section of the United States Army [26] . Five years later, Women in the Air Force was formed as President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act which allowed women to serve in fully integrated units of the Armed Forces during peacetime [27] . 120,000 women served during the Korean War. In 1970, Anna Mae Hays became the first woman in the US Military to hold a General Officer rank [28] . In 1974, the United States Air Force accepted its first six female pilots. The first of these six was Lieutenant Commander Barbara Allen Rainey who died in 1982 while instructing a student pilot [29] / [30] . In 1989, Captain Linda L. Bray became the first American woman to command soldiers in battle. Her assignment was to take over a kennel of guard dogs that was defended by Panamanian forces during the Invasion of Panama [31] .

The 1991 Gulf War was the first time that women were able to serve under all areas of the Armed Forces. The 40,000 women that did serve gained public attention as they were not officially allowed to participate in combat situations [32] . In 2007, Leigh Ann Hester was the first woman ever awarded the Silver Star [33] .



Though women make up 15% of the Navy, until recently, women were not allowed to serve on submarines. The most obvious reason for this is space: submarines are simply too small to accommodate separate facilities for women. It would cost $300,000 per bunk to permit women to serve on submarines, versus the $4,000 per bunk to permit women to serve on aircraft carriers [34] . The second (and more ethical) reason is that small doses of radiation from nuclear submarine reactors can cause infertility and possibly birth defects. This can, however be avoided were women provided the proper protection and nuclear training for submariner activities [35] . Thursday, April 29, 2010, the ban on female submariners was lifted. “There are extremely capable women in the navy who have the talent and desire to succeed in the submarine force,” said the navy secretary, Ray Mabus, “Enabling them to serve in the submarine community is best for the submarine force and our navy.” [36] 

Today, women make up 13% of the United States Armed Forces [37] – they are allowed to serve in every way with the exception of direct combat; however, they ARE allowed to participate in direct combat if they are fighter pilots or are accompanying male infantry units to conduct missions in sex segregated areas


Women make up 12.8% of the Australian Defense Force. Of that 12.8%, 15.1% are members of the Royal Australian Air Force, 14.6% are members of the Royal Australian Navy, 10.5% are members of the Australian army, and 17.5% are in the Reserves. As Austrailian women are barred from direct combat, they have access to only 74% of all available roles in the Armed Forces.


Since 1989, there has been no gender discrimination in the Swedish Armed Forces. Women have full access to all training and positions (including combat) and today constitute 5% of the population of their military. Other nations that grant women full access to combat roles are New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Israel, and Switzerland. [38] 


Depending on the time and the culture, women have participated in different levels of fighting during wartime. While some societies have fully embraced the idea of woman warriors by either encouraging or requiring them to fight, other societies’ moral codes have fully banned women from the warzone. The dilemma in the United States today is that, because the US is a melting pot of immigrants whose moral and/or religious beliefs vary immensely, there are severely conflicting viewpoints on whether women should or should not participate in war.

Those who support woman warriors (feminists) argue that it is their legal and god given right to have the equal opportunity and obligations as men to fight for their country. This viewpoint gained momentum after the 1996 court case United States v Virginia, when the Supreme Court ordered the Virginia Military Institute to allow women to register as cadets [39] / [40] . In their fight for equal rights in the Armed Forces, women have continually challenged laws that “(deny) to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature- equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society” (J. Ruth Bader Ginsburg) [41] .

Viewpoints against female fighters believe that the ‘rights and obligations’ mentioned above are irrelevant to the fact that the average male is superior to the average woman as a combat soldier. The female skeletal system is not as dense as that of a male, and therefore more prone to breakage or injury [42] . According to the Center for Military Readiness, “Female soldiers [are], on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50% less upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance” [43] . However, there are always exceptions. An article in the Army Times, July29, 1996 states that many women “do possess the physical attributes suitable to become combat soldiers” [44] . This should be understood by the vast history of woman warriors; however, there is a perfect present day example. On May 31, 2002, Philippa Tattersall successfully completed the 8-week commando course to become the only female to have ever been a member of the Green Beret of the British Royal Marines on her third and final attempt, thus proving she is more capable as a combat soldier than over 98% of Great Britain’s Armed Forces [45] .

Though skeptics may agree that Tattersall is a most spectacular exception, they raise the logical issue of risk of pregnancy while in active service. Critics are concerned that it is quite possible for a woman to become pregnant (whether by choice or by rape) while on tour. A woman could try to escape war by purposely trying to get pregnant; she could have a sexual relationship with another soldier and get pregnant on accident; she could get raped. Of course, this raises the ethical question of what to do in this situation… if a woman were to get pregnant while at war; would she have the option or access to an abortion? Would her hormonal levels alter her ability to fight until she can be taken to a safe haven or transferred back home? And what would the psychological concerns be if she knew she was pregnant, and it was accidentally aborted (through trauma or stress)- would she be able to return immediately to the front lines?

Others argue that the woman does not need to become pregnant to become hysterical; though a man can be programmed to kill, it is impossible to kill the maternal instinct of a female. Monica Lin Brown negated this theory as she was presented with the Silver Star for shielding wounded soldiers with her body, killing 6 opposing men, and then treating life threatening injuries while on tour in Afghanistan [46] / [47] .

Other critics may agree that many women are perfectly capable of becoming combat soldiers; however they believe that, due to psychological concerns for MEN in the unit, women still should not be able to fight as combat soldiers in integrated units. These critics acknowledge the strength and abilities of women, but believe that women could be a distraction to men in the unit and any romantic relationship could shift the focus, generate jealousy and unbalanced trust within the unit, and compromise the mission.

Another psychological concern is rape. It has been well documented that men who are out on tour without being with a woman, seeing death and violence everywhere are “not themselves”. It would be too easy to rape or gang-rape a female(s) in the unit. And then? The trust within the unit (and therefore the mission) is certainly compromised. But even if a unit did not rape or harm a female member of the unit, they cannot protect her from almost certain sexual assault if she were to be captured as a prisoner of war. “In a Presidential Commission report it was found that male POWs, while being subject to physical abuse, were never subject to sexual abuse, and women were almost always subject to sexual abuse” [48] . What then, if she were to become pregnant and forced to bear the child of her enemy? Brigadier General and Command Surgeon Rhonda Cornum admitted to having been sexually assaulted while she was held as a prisoner of war in Iraq in 1991, though she claims that “A lot of people make a big deal about getting molested, but in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list” [49] .

In response to the growing number of rapes in the many branches of military, one woman in the coastguard started the Military Rape Crisis Center in 2006 to aid those suffering psychological issues post-attack.

“In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman briefly mentions that female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces have been officially prohibited from serving in close combat military operations since 1948 (in 2001, subsequent to publication, women began serving in IDF combat units on an experimental basis). The reason for removing female soldiers from the front lines is no reflection on the performance of female soldiers, but that of the male infantrymen after witnessing a woman wounded. The IDF saw a complete loss of control over soldiers who apparently experienced an uncontrollable, protective, instinctual aggression.” [50] 

Australian special ops agent Melody Kemp says that these soldiers “are reluctant to take women on reconnaissance or special operations, as they fear that in the case of combat or discovery, their priority will be to save the women and not to complete the mission. Thus while men might be able to be programmed to kill, it’s is not as easy to program men to neglect women.”

Grossman also mentions that men are hardly intimidated by, and will rarely surrender to a female soldier. However, this could be used to our advantage- women are much more likely to be able to complete missions that require soldiers to enter, search, occupy or act in sex-segregated areas without throwing up red flags or causing confrontation and direct conflict.

“Finally, there is the argument that by not incorporating women into combat, the American government is failing to tap into another source of soldiers for military combat operations. This argument claims that the government is creating a military that treats women as second-class citizens and not equals of men.” [51] 

Women should be granted every right and opportunity as men in order to be considered “equals”. Though the average male body is stronger and more capable of endurance, a woman should be able to fight in combat if she wishes to and is able to fight. Though the possibility of sexual abuse and pregnancy seems daunting and controversial, a woman who is willing to put her life on the line and is willing to be tortured or killed for her country should be fully aware of other sideline risks. A woman should not be denied any opportunity as an American citizen just because she is a woman.

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