Warfare is often assumed to be a purely masculine sphere of human activity. This gendered conception is a myth.
Women have historically been participants in diverse aspects of warfare: recruitment, training, mobilization, strategic formulation, military intelligence, war finance, logistical services, medical services, command, and even combat. Societies in every historical period have constructed different gender relations and gendered notions of warfare.
John A. Lynn’s Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) demonstrates that women played integral roles in the logistics and pillage economy of early modern armies. Lynn argues that women’s roles were progressively limited by late seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century armies, but women still played various supporting roles for armies. The French Revolution and nationalism later created many more opportunities for women to participate directly in military organizations. As historian Lynn Hunt wrote in a blurb for Lynn’s book: “In an engaging work that combines military and social history, Lynn brings to life the indispensable role of women in early modern European armies and tracks down the reasons for a major shift in their place after 1650. We can never again imagine war as only men’s work.”
Individual women have at times cross-dressed to serve in armies, but groups of women have also acted openly as combatants in some armed forces. One of the most studied cases is the Israeli Defense Forces, where women have long served in combat roles.
During many civil wars, women have participated in combat roles not normally permitted in conventional inter-state wars. My own research shows that besieged women played an active role in siege combat defense: “‘Generous Amazons Came to the Breach’: Besieged Women in the French Wars of Religion,” Gender and History 16 (November 2004): 654-688. I am currently expanding this research into a book on gender and violence in the French Wars of Religion.
Today, one of the most controversial issues relating to women and warfare is whether or not female soldiers should be permitted to serve in combat roles in national armies. A new article in Foreign Affairs argues that American female soldiers should be allowed to participate fully in combat operations. This article adds to a long-running debate in the United States, in both military and civilian spheres, about the place of women in the U.S. armed forces.