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Response to Review no. 143

I am grateful to Kay Sexton for her review, not only because the approbation of a peer indicates the efforts made by the contributors and editors were successful, but also because she has stimulated me into thinking again about some of the themes which emerge from the collection. I shall try to respond in kind, addressing the volume in terms of its broader themes, and not attempting to speak for any individual contributions except my own.

What was interesting as an editor was the thematic coherence of the collection. We began with the goal of providing coverage of women in the military in different ages and areas. Contributors to A Soldier and A Woman suggested the focus of their discussions without editorial interference. Nonetheless, despite the considerable diversity illustrated in the contributions, Gerard DeGroot and I found a number of themes emerged repeatedly from the text: the motivations behind military service, for example, or perceptions of the body and its clothing. As Kay Sexton’s review indicates, although the individual chapters stand alone, readers who explore the collection more widely will be able to explore a number of themes from a range of perspectives and methodological approaches. For example, although the exceptional individual has traditionally had a place in military history, analysis of gender in war has encouraged the interest in recovering the voice of the individual in the ranks. Individual voices permeate the volume, from the poetry of American woman veterans to the oral testimony of female pilots of the Soviet Union. The collection also underlines how profitably identity issues – here, specifically gender and national identity – can be approached through military history.


The recovery of the individual voice is perhaps one of the ways of countering the problem that, as Kay Sexton points out, there are large areas of women’s contributions to the military which remain unexplored or inaccessible. The collection includes material on Algeria, Britain, China, France, Israel, the United States, the Soviet Union and Vietnam: it would have been equally desirable to cover more of the African continent, Australia, and South America. It is to be hoped the continued interest in the subject matter will encourage further investigation: as Sexton’s perceptive questions indicate, there are many questions outstanding, not only in terms of geography. I shall discuss these briefly below.

What the cover expresses accurately about the themes of the book are the multiple identities and roles suggested in the figure of the female soldier and the tensions inherent in the concept of military femininity. Military masculinity is also a fractured concept, but it has a less contradictory relationship with understandings of male gender identity than the relationship between the female soldier and constructions of her gender. As Kay Sexton’s review concludes, the debate over women and the military hinges on a matter of life and death. It is not novel or extraordinary for women to have this power. In many of their accepted roles, from mothers to nurses, women have implicit control over the (continued) existence of another human being. However, the woman soldier involves a shift in emphasis, not only from the implicit to the explicit, but from life-giving to life-taking. For example, P. Summerfield cites one MP who rejected a proposal to arm British women in the Second World War by arguing ‘a woman’s duty is to give life and not to take it’ (p128). It may be acceptable for women to wield power over life and death when their goal is to preserve life, but it is not when their function could involve denying it. C. Taylor’s analysis of women terrorists shows the strength of this taboo, and how agency even in this area is returned to the male through the media construction of the ‘deluded woman led astray by a man’.

As many of the contributions show, the combatant woman soldier challenges traditional gender roles also by occupying a role in which she may be required not only to kill, but also to kill male soldiers. In wartime particularly, however, the male soldier represents the noblest form of masculinity and functions as an embodiment of the nation. Although the female can also be presented as representative of the nation, the roles this includes (for example, as the mother of the nation) do not translate easily on to the female soldier, nor can the latter readily gain acceptance in the male soldier’s role. As H. Praeger Young and N. Ladewig’s chapters on the Long March and Algerian women show, for example, the woman soldier can at best temporarily straddle the two identities. The title of the collection refers to one individual, not two, but the term ‘soldier’ (or ‘veteran’, or ‘terrorist’) still conjures up images of a male, not a female.

The presence of women in a male dominated environment means that gender relations within the military have attracted both academic and media attention. Incidents of harassment, for example, automatically take on a gendered dimension. In 1990 a female first-year student, Gwen Dreyer, was chained to a urinal at the Naval Academy. The suggestive combination of a young woman, bondage, and a scatological, ‘masculine’, object helped to stoke the subsequent media furore. The incident attracted contradictory interpretations. Did it represent gendered victimisation, provoked in part by the increasing integration of women into the U.S. military? Or did it represent not the rejection, but the acceptance of women, through their inclusion in traditional hazing activities? There is no simple answer to these questions, but they point to one of the central issues inherent in women’s inclusion in the military: their mere presence creates ambiguity, an ambiguity with which individuals, institutions, states and nations find themselves having to engage.

In the filmic representations of women in the military, harassment incidents serve less to make a statement about the nature of the institution of the military than to provide the female protagonists an opportunity to show their mettle. In G. I. Jane, Master Chief John Urgayle is a sadistic adversary of Lt. Jordan O’Neil’s, yet it is his approbation which provides evidence that O’Neil has won through -gaining his respect is supposed to give her credibility. It is she who must gain his acceptance, not he who must revise his views. Nonetheless, as F. Borch and D. Izraeli’s chapters indicate (the former on the US, the latter on Israel), the military can also play a significant part in instigating and supporting social change in the areas of gender relations and roles, and cannot simply be represented as conservative and reactionary. Furthermore many of the women whose voices are heard in the book resist the imposition of a gendered interpretation of their service. The contributions repeatedly work against over-simplification of any of the issues involved.

Nonetheless, as the Gwen Dreyer case illustrated, women soldiers can rarely escape being seen as representatives of their sex. Discussions of personal relationships within the military, for example, have tended to focus on the sexual behaviour of the members of the Armed Forces and the significance of rank. Despite fears concerning the impact of females on group cohesion, less attention has been paid to non-sexual relationships, whether between males and females, or between women. As Kay Sexton points out, the chapters do not indicate that women form mutually supportive groups. In G. J. DeGroot’s chapter on sex and romance among British servicewomen, he speaks of a ‘sense of sisterhood’ that permitted the sharing of experiences between individuals whose paths would not otherwise have crossed (p100), but this is a rare mention of sorority. This is particularly intriguing given the military emphasis on the importance of co-operation and bonding for survival. Here in particular many questions remain outstanding, and must perhaps be addressed through a broader engagement with cultural constructions of sorority.

I hope that the thought-provoking review and this response reflect how stimulating a topic women in the military constitutes, that some of the ground has been covered and that many areas open to further investigation. Analysis of the woman soldier requires engagement with themes ranging from the power of the media to the purpose of myths, and with topics as diverse as aircraft and underwear design. Nonetheless, there is a vast amount of thematic cohesion. This combination of diversity and coherence renders investigation into women and the military immensely rewarding, and is, I hope, successfully reflected in A Soldier and a Woman.