Women fighting in the British army – whatever next! But this was inevitable after the USA led the way by repealing the act that banned women from serving in the artillery, armor, and infantry. No great cause for celebration here but a further acknowledgement of the changing role of women in society.
Also nothing new, for from earliest times women have fought with sword and axe alongside the men. Roman historian Plutarch described battles where barbarian women fought as bravely as men and ‘fell on their opponents uttering a hideous, blood curdling cries. Another Roman claimed that the women of Gaul were every bit as formidable than their men, charging into battle kicking and punching with limbs flailing ‘like missiles from a catapult.’ In Rome itself there were female counterparts to the make gladiators. Tacitus recorded that the Emperor Nero regularly held shows with female gladiators from the upper classes.
Christianity later discouraged such behaviour so women were forced to disguise themselves as men if they wanted to enlist. In 1782 one Englishman joked that there were so many disguised women serving in the army that they ought to given a regiment of their own. This had already happened ion Africa in the late sixteenth century part of the Dahomian army was composed entirely of woman. This ‘Amazon’ corps originated in 1727 when King Agadja, in order to make his army seem larger to the enemy, armed a regiment of females . To his surprise they fought so well that he expanded the corps to over 5,000 women making part of it his personal, palace guard. In a battle in 1840, an enemy force routed the male Dahomean soldiers and only a rally of the Amazon corps prevented disaster.
In the Middle East there was a Persian regiment of female cavalry in the late 16th century. The Elizabethan explorers, the Sherley brothers who visited the country in 1598 were met by a huge mounted entourage led by a band of courtesans on horseback dressed in bright colours and astride their horses like men. As they came closer the women began shrieking and ululating in a manner ‘such as only the wild Irish make.’
Not until the 20th century did European women become so involved in fighting. The best known example were the hundreds of thousands of Soviet women who fought against the German invaders in ‘The Great Patriotic War.’ Some of them performed remarkably not least the snipers. Klaudia Kalugina was one of the deadliest. She was sent to the front line in Mar 1944, joining the 3rd Belorussian Front. She killed many Germans during the war but admits to screaming out loud when a female colleague was hit. Elsewhere in the occupied countries women took part in street fighting, carried out assassinations, and performed intelligence missions. In Italy, reportedly 35,000 women were partisans, of whom 650 were killed.
But the largest number of fighting partisan women was in Yugoslavia. where they made up just over ten percent of the soldiers in the National Liberation Army. Mainly of low rank they were concentrated in the medical corps. Women partisans led the same life as men, slept in the same quarters, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes. Official records show that 100,000 women were in the National Liberation Army and partisan units . Surprisingly women were killed at more than twice the rate of men which shows their above-average bravery and stamina. 7
Other guerrilla groups have involved women in a combat role among them the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. Women reportedly made up nearly one-third of the Sandinista combat forces. After their victory, the front’s founder praised women for fighting in the front line of battle. Women were particularly attracted to the Sandinistas because, as a movement that grew up in a feminist era, the front had a strong women’s organization which advocated policies that helped women.
Women’s participation in torturing and killing prisoners is found elsewhere as well, scattered across the anthropological record of cross-cultural research on simple societies. For example, among the Tupinamba of Brazil, women enthusiastically helped torture prisoners of war to death and then dismember and eat them. Similarly, the Kiwai women of Oceania had the special job of “mangling” enemy wounded and then killing them with knives or digging sticks
Most people believe erroneously that Israeli women now participate in combat. A few women fought as combat soldiers before the 1948 war, when isolated settlements came under attack. With independence and the creation of a regular army, however, women were immediately and permanently excluded from all combat roles. Today women make up over half of female draftees and serve in secretarial and clerical jobs. Regular Israeli combat units also include a few women, who do administrative work. However as soon as battle looms, the female soldiers are immediately evacuated.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War when there were great manpower shortages they were often used as arms instructors. They were a great success for as a IDF spokesman said; ‘New recruits do not dare complain of muscle aches and pains or drop out of a long-distance run when it is being led by a female sergeant.’ The problem was their effect in combat on male soldiers. In mixed units the men supposedly showed excessive concern for the well-being of the women at the expense of the mission.