The recent plan to see women take on frontline combat roles in the Australian military from 2016 removes one of the last formal barriers to women’s participation in all realms of work.
Unsurprisingly, the notion of women engaged in combat has drawn out familiar fears that rely on ideas of femininity that prevent women from achieving their potential.
Take the idea that women are physically weak and could slow battalions. Or that men’s instinct is to protect women and their presence in combat will put them in danger. There is also a perception that female soldiers are vulnerable to rape.
To put these beliefs in context, we should consider the reasoning used to constrain women in recent history.
In the nineteenth-century, the theory of “limited energy” held that adolescent girls must avoid intellectual work during puberty or their reproductive organs would not develop successfully.
Physical or mental labour during women’s fertile years was not only unfeminine but would be detrimental to the race.
Such quasi-scientific explanations arose from perceptions of women’s weakness and intellectual inferiority.
They also worked as self-fulfilling prophecies by discouraging higher education and sports for girls and women.
Most women will never be as strong, or have as much endurance, as most men.
But this did not stop women taking up the majority of physically demanding manufacturing labour during World War II that was previously considered “men’s work”.
Members of the US military today are not all tall, muscular young men who resemble extras in a Jean-Claude Van Damme film.
With changes in warfare and the protracted nature of conflict in the Middle East, shorter men, men who wear glasses, men with a history of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and women make up the ranks.
If a small percentage of women wish to serve in the military and can meet physical and psychological standards that also accept men who don’t represent the physical apex of humanity, it is sex discrimination to disallow them because they are female.
If we accept that not all members of the military are as physically strong and intelligent as one another, arguments against women’s participation in combat rest on perceptions of their burden on male combatants.
Male soldiers might feel a compulsion to protect women from injury and the threat of enemy rape.
The torture of male prisoners of war shows that being male is no guarantee of safety from abuse. As Professor Catherine Lumby points out, we should be equally horrified of maiming or death befalling any fellow human at war, whether male or female.
These ideas also overlook women’s willing participation in war zones as nurses, and ambulance and aid workers.
Millions more women are unwilling participants in war as civilians caught up in conflict. Like members of the Army, Navy and Air Force, these women’s lives are in danger.
During the Battle of Britain, civilian women performed brave feats that saw them awarded for heroism.
A senior member of the Girl Guides, Joyce Fagge climbed through the ruins of a house that had been attacked by long-range shells to rescue the sole surviving resident, applying a tourniquet to his femoral artery while another shell landed close by.
The Girl Guides District Commissioner of Canterbury City single-handedly fought a three-storey house fire during three air raids in which incendiary bombs and shell splinters fell around her.
Even a humble Brownie Guide leader, Peggy Prince, rescued an airman who had crashed into the English Channel by paddling out to save him in a canoe.
If we dismantle perceptions of what girls and women are capable of we can be surprised by the result.
During World War I, 90 Girl Guides acted as messengers for MI5 in London. They were entrusted with the verbal communication of top-secret pieces of information.
Boy Scouts were initially chosen, but proved too talkative and unreliable in comparison with the girls, who took their jobs seriously.
As this example shows, we need to base decisions on individuals not preconceptions of what women can do.
War should not be celebrated – it is an outcome of patriarchal societies that has massive consequences for women worldwide.
Nevertheless, the acceptance that some women have the capability to fight alongside men is progress toward equality.
It would be preferable for Australia not to be involved in military combat in 2016. If we should, however, the presence of women on the frontline will help to overwrite ideas about women’s vulnerability, their essential preference for nurturing and need for male protection.
It is myths like these that ensure that all women are still in search of substantive equality.