London - In spite of examples such as Joan of Arc or Boudicca, the enduring myth in the Western world is that men are the warriors while women stayed meekly at home.
But the belief that women are the peacemakers while men are more likely to be warmongers is not borne out by history, a new study claims.
Research shows records have airbrushed women soldiers out of history as they do not fit the prevailing notion of men as protectors and women as weak. Many examples exist of women who fought as bravely as their male counterparts, but they have not achieved the recognition they deserve, claims Professor Montserrat Huguet of the Carlos III University of Madrid.
“War is learnt, as are so many other trades, and gender is irrelevant here,” she explained.
Her research found women have always been present in wars, both ancient and contemporary, but have been generally portrayed as victims of war.
If they have had an active role, they had often been seen as far from the front line serving in the rear as ambulance drivers, nurses, prostitutes or spies such as Charlotte Grey. But history books have often ignored the contribution woman soldiers made in actual fighting.
Huguet said that although military commanders understood women were equal to male soldiers, often they were not deployed because of fears that it might be seen as a sign of weakness, or if they did, their contribution was played down.
For example, during the American Civil War women impersonated men to take up arms, but “the military authorities were perplexed and avoided recording these women’s activities in the camp registers, thus extending the cloak of silence, which later resulted in a lack of data when history was being written”, Huguet said,.
“Fortunately, the expansion of archive sources has allowed us to gradually reconstruct the paths and activities of women at war.”
On many occasions, she claims, women were the ones who incited and promoted armed conflicts, as the rise of nationalist movements during the 19th century demonstrates. The enduring symbol of this era is that of Marianne, the national emblem of France who represents liberty and reason as she leads the people into battle.
Although men tried to keep women away from the fighting, they also associated women with the feminine ideal of the homeland, conceiving them as mothers of heroes and champions of the nation.
“They became what I like to call ‘heroes for around the house’,” said Huguet.
Women’s support of pacificism, particularly during the 20th century’s two world wars, allowed the myth of the meek feminine to endure. Yet the study found that as women’s pacifism grew, “militaristic feminism” grew at the same pace.
“Why would all women be linked to an anti-military opinion when there was a large segment of women who sought access to the various military branches under conditions equal to those enjoyed by men?” asked Huguet.
The study noted that during the Spanish Civil war in the 1930s women fought for the Republican side. “[In] the middle of the social revolution, encouraged by egalitarian ideology, they volunteered for combat, in battalions and militias,” said Huguet.
In 1936 a decree was issued banishing women from the battlefield. “In spite of being prohibited from participating in combat, some women, like Rosario Sánchez Mora [Dinamintera] and Aida Lafuente [known as Libertaria] did not accept being moved away from the front; these women, undaunted, faced the same risks as the men they fought with,” said Huguet.
“In Spain, in spite of the fact that international history is already an extensively studied field, with excellent results, there are areas that have not been given the attention they deserve. Such is the case of women and their presence in and contributions to the international history of conflicts, negotiations and peace. It is essential to establish the scientific foundations of women’s participation in the historical construction of the culture, considering not only their social activism, but their activity in defence of their countries.” – Daily Mail