According to Tolstoy, war and women are things that don't go together--they exist apart. But when I witnessed all the atrocities of 1941, the death of my friends and relatives, peaceful civilians, I wanted to liberate my people from the enemy. I want you to underline in red that it was the cherished dream of the girls to liberate the land, but none of us wanted to fight--to kill.
--Capt Mariya Dolina
125th Guards Bomber Regiment
Hero of the Soviet Union
Women have always participated in armed conflict, most often as active supporters of the armies they followed. Some women, usually the wives of soldiers, served as nurses, laundresses, cooks, and seamstresses. Others chose active participation in battle, including the famed Mary Hays McCauly, who earned the moniker "Molly Pitcher" during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 when she provided medical care and pitchers of water to Continental Army members fighting the British. After shrapnel struck her husband, McCauly took up his position as a gunner so that the artillery crew could continue to fight. Gen George Washington rewarded her bravery by making her a noncommissioned officer. (1)
The story of Molly Pitcher symbolizes the realities of women and war, which has always affected them to some capacity, despite civilized society's best attempts to protect the gentler sex from war's brutality. Yet, regardless of Molly Pitcher's successes on the battlefield, American culture has traditionally denigrated female participation in war. In most cultures, even today, the idea of a woman engaged in combat operations is anathema. History, therefore, has either completely dismissed female contributions and participation in armed conflicts or relegated their involvement to scandalous supporting roles, such as prostitutes or pillow-friendly spies.
In an effort to explore whether current US laws and policies excluding women from combat remain valid or need amending, this article reviews three case studies that demonstrate the variety of ways women have participated in modern armed conflict. The first one examines the experiences of World War II female Soviet pilots in their more traditional involvement in armed conflict. The second analyzes the asymmetric aspects of female participation during conflict, focusing specifically on terrorist activities. The final case study presents American females' experience in the All Volunteer Force, emphasizing their performance in combat operations since such participation began in the 1990s.
The article concludes by proposing how the US military and society should move forward in the debate over the role of women in combat. Despite the best attempts by critics to argue that society should protect women from the violence of war, in reality, women in the All Volunteer Force structure currently engage in combat.
The three case studies offer evidence that women have participated and always will participate in combat. Moreover, their successful contributions have made a difference. To deny citizens the right to fight for their country based solely on gender remains blatant discrimination. The United States should once again assume a world-leadership role with regard to equality, live up to the rhetoric of...