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18 September 2014
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Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

By Peter Craddick-Adams

Image of wrens on board ship, 1990
Wrens on board ship, 1990  
'War is men’s business, not ladies',' we are told in Gone With the Wind, but the total wars of the 20th century have dismembered this concept and forced us to acknowledge that it is just as much the concern of women.

Professor Margaret Randolph Higonnet argues that the advances in military technology and strategy have blurred the boundaries between war zones and the home front, whilst mass communication and psychological warfare have affected all sectors of nations at war.

'Now, it is accepted that women are as competent as their male colleagues in many uniformed roles ...'

Breaking with the past, in 1914-18 women displayed independence by taking over men’s jobs and risking their lives as nurses and ambulance drivers at the front. But in 1919, their organisations were largely disbanded as men again took full control of the business of soldiering.

By World War Two, they had gone into combat in the Soviet Union and joined resistance movements throughout Europe, and the male-female distinction in total war lost any meaning.

As most historians have themselves in the past been men, we should not be surprised that there has been relatively little interest in the female perspective of historical events or personalities until recently. The tide has now turned, and modern historians are devoting a great deal of time and attention to this hitherto unresearched field.

We are now discovering that there has, perhaps surprisingly, been a long tradition of women serving in the armed forces of their country, alongside men, and that their contribution has not been limited to nursing - scooping the wounded, angel-like, to safety and recovery.

Now, it is accepted that women are as competent as their male colleagues in many uniformed roles, and have proved themselves capable in combat. The lesson we learn is that war is equally the business of some men and some women, but that it is the preserve of neither.

Published: 2005-03-01

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