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The fight over fighting women in Iraq and Afghanistan

Although substantial numbers of American women enlisted in both World Wars, continuing to serve in auxiliary branches of the military thereafter, women were not formally permitted to occupy frontline combat roles in the US military until the last decade. In our discussion this week, we consider the various reasons why opposition to women in combat was so staunch, focusing in particular on the intersection of ideas about gender/sex/sexuality. Yet despite this profound and persistent hostility to women engaging in battle, the recent deployment of 'fighting women' in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to elicit a rather muted reception-- not howls of protest-- from the US public. How do we understand this apparent anomaly?

Required reading/viewing:

Read about a 2008 documentary, Lioness (dir. Meg McLagan & Daria Sommers, 2008), on women soldiers in Iraq:

Then watch an 8-minute clip:

Lizette Alvarez, 'G.I. Jane Stealthily Breaks the Combat Barrier,' New York Times, August 16, 2009 [ProQuest Historical Newspapers]

Martin van Creveld, ‘The Great Illusion: Women In The Military,’ Millennium, 29: 2 (June 2000): 429-42

Megan MacKenzie, ‘Let Women Fight: Ending the US Military’s Female Combat Ban,’ Foreign Affairs, 91:6 (Nov/Dec. 2012): 32-42

Elizabeth Mesok, ‘Affective Technologies of War: US Female Counterinsurgents and the Performances of Gendered Labor,’ Radical History Review, 123 (Oct. 2015): 60-87 [search the Warwick Library catalogue by title for Radical History Review if you're struggling to find this... and email me in the event of failure!]

Indicative seminar questions:

  • why, historically, was the US military-- along with some segments of civilian society-- so averse to women serving in combat roles?
  • How much did this opposition to fighting women have to do with issues of sexuality?
  • when it came to light in the US media that GI Jane was 'stealthily breaking the combat barrier,' there was (perhaps surprisingly) little public outcry. What do you think might explain this?
  • how-- and how successfully-- has the military attempted to instrumentalize gender (i.e. using women soldiers to undertake particular kinds of roles, and to project certain messages) in its counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Supplementary reading:

Jane Blair, Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq (2009) e-book

Laura Browder, When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans (2010) e-book, Introduction and ch. 'Women in the Military'

Melissa T. Brown, Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender in US Military Recruiting Advertising During the All-Volunteer Force (2012) e-book

Connie Brownson, Lady Leathernecks: The Enigma of Women in the United States Marine Corps (2015)

Synne Dyvik, Gendering Counterinsurgency: Performativity, Embodiment and Experience in the Afghan 'Theatre of War' (2017) e-book

Paige Whaley Eager, Waging Gendered Wars: US Military Women in Afghanistan and Iraq (2016) e-book

Jean Bethke Elshtain, ‘Shooting at the Wrong Target: A Reply to Van Creveld,’ Millennium, 29: 2 (2000): 443-48

Agnes Gereben, Implications of Integrating Women into the Marine Corps Infantry (2015) e-book

Darlene M. Iskra, Women in the United States Armed Forces: A Guide to the Issues (2010), ch. 2, ‘Rescinding the Combat Exclusion Laws,’ e-book

Kristy Karmack, Women in Combat: Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service Report 7-5700) Aug. 18, 2015

Megan MacKenzie, Beyond the Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight (2015)

Bernard Rostker, I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force (2006) e-book

Tanya L. Roth, Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980 (2021) e-book

Stephanie Szitanyi, Gender Trouble in the U.S. Military: Challenges to Regimes of Male Privilege (2020) e-book

James E. Wise and Scott Brown, Women at War: Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Conflicts (2011) e-book