Women on the front line

Guest Hoyden Mindy also blogs for ecelectic group blog For Battle!

This issue is back in the news again, with the announcement that the DSTO is looking at the combat roles available in the army, previously denied to women on the basis of gender, to see whether gender restrictions could be replaced with physical competency requirements. Article from the SMH is here.

The issue was raised by the outgoing Chief of Army, Peter Leahy, who said that one day physical ability could take the place of gender in determining what roles women could take in the military. It’s important to note that 90% of roles within the military are open to women. It’s only a few specific roles such as the SAS, infantry, artillery gunners, and combat roles where women are not allowed to serve.

Of course the feelings of the government of the day also play a role, although the Defence Minister’s position seems to have changed from ‘never’ to ‘maybe, depending on a number of factors’.

There are still opponents to women taking over combat roles. From the linked SMH article:

Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, said he believed there was “a little bit of flexibility left” to remove restrictions on roles such as in artillery which is becoming increasingly automated.

But he did not think Australia would see female riflemen in his lifetime. “The laws of biomechanics aren’t blown away ever by the most persuasively argued gender-equity theory,” he said. “When you get people physically fighting each other hand to hand on a daily basis, it’s just not fair to put women into that situation.”

But he doesn’t say why. Personally, I don’t like war and wouldn’t want to go there myself, or either of my children. However, there are women out there who do find serving in the armed forces satisfying and who do wish to serve in the 10% of roles currently denied to them. Also, serving in such roles would open up opportunities for promotion previously not available to them. So while I don’t like the idea of any combat, and would prefer that no one was needed for combat roles, I support the rights of those who wish to serve to do so regardless of gender.

What is rarely mentioned yet highly relevant is that modern combat makes distinguishing between “combat” and “non-combat” roles fairly meaningless: women serving on navy vessels can’t avoid combat if it comes to their boat, women in a convoy in the Middle East that comes under fire will return fire, and women serving as medics can even get combat medals for bravery under fire (although Monica Brown was subsequently removed from her unit). Is it fair that women who come under and return fire don’t get the extra training and pay that their male colleagues do?

So what is your attitude to women in combat roles and why?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, Life, media

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5 replies

  1. I’m not keen on a military life myself either, Mindy – but if I were I’d definitely want the option of better pay and promotion track that is available through formal combat roles, particularly if I was going to be coming under fire anyway in a supposed non-combatant support role.
    Physical competency tests as the standard seem a no-brainer, really.

  2. It’s only a few specific roles such as the SAS, infantry, artillery gunners, and combat roles where women are not allowed to serve.
    Nuh-uh. Women are also banned from working in aircraft maintenance, as one of the chemicals they use to clean out the engines can cause deformities in a fetus.
    Obviously the solution to this was to presume all women were unknowingly pregnant (or at least’s that’s the official argument).

  3. It rather amazes me that we still live in a time where “physical ability could take the place of gender in determining what roles women could take in the military” is used next to the phrase “one day.”
    My priority where I live is making conscription equitable. Either they need to conscript women along with men or they need to get rid of conscription altogether.

  4. While I don’t personally want to go to the front lines myself, I support women who do. From the few servicemen (and they’ve all been men) I’ve known, I think it would be hard to have to deal with that boys’ club machismo. What it comes down to is women will be considered less able to play any role in the forces while those restrictions on combat positions stand.
    Given you’re talking about the Army, I also wonder what the story is with the RAAF. My partner says women have proven to be better jet flyers than men because their anatomy performs better under high g force. I don’t know if this is true, nor do I know if women in Australia are allowed to fly.

  5. I have no problem with physical standards that are gender-agnostic and rationally relevant to the job at hand — though for some military jobs, that would result in few if any women qualifying. I’m open to the argument that some military assignments can’t be opened up to women because of logistical concerns — though I can’t think of any off the top of my head where that’s a compelling concern.
    Bottom line, make those decisions based on qualifications and capabilities. I threw in the “rationally relevant” bit so that the folks in charge don’t require that you be able to lift and carry 120lbs. as a qualification for driving a truck.
    I’m 38, 5’4″, in mediocre physical condition. I know there are a lot of women who would perform better in any military assignment than I, but as of a few years ago (I’m too old to enlist now), I was eligible for all of them and those women weren’t.

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