On Perceptions of the Role of Women in War
Updated: Feb 16
Last week I observed an interview on Israeli television of the writer whose recent book opposed certain views that were expressed in the 1992 bestseller by John Gray, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus regarding the fundamental psychological differences between the sexes. Whether or not this new book is effective in presenting the writer's views (hopefully more so than came across in the interview) I cannot say, having read neither it, nor indeed Gray's book. It is a topic that, whichever side one might take, is bound to provoke strong opinions and heated debate. Here, in recent years, the role of women in fighting units of the armed services has been increasingly challenged by some who wish to take on an active combat role and regard their participation as pilots of fighter planes or in tank crews as a positive step in challenging and ultimately changing the unequal position of women in a still largely male-dominated society. This position is also often ardently disputed by those who see such changes as a travesty in what they regard as the natural order of things, women simply being different from men, and any attempt at opposing that fact, a perversion. In between these views are many who are either not interested or have not formed an opinion because they feel unqualified to do so, or simply prefer to avoid controversy. I fall under the last two categories, which is perhaps cowardly. The furthest out on the limb that I am willing to go is to say that I am in favour of equality of choice and opportunity for both sexes but I also believe that men and women differ, both physically and in their thought process, actions and emotions... and that this is not a bad thing. So, if you should ask me point blank if women should take on combat roles, I would probably say that they should be permitted to, but perhaps they should not want to.
In the past, in most societies it was neither expected, nor indeed contemplated that women would actively participate in battle. There were exceptions, such as women fighters in the Soviet army during the Second World War and more recently in the Kurdish army fighting in northern Syria and in recent years attitudes have changed in many societies and women serve in combat roles in several Western nations including, particularly since the Gulf War, in the United States Army. But if we look back a century and beyond, the role of women in war was almost entirely limited to morally supporting the war effort, providing medical care and certain other services to the fighters (in the Middle Ages for example, cooking, sex and laundry - which sounds uncomfortably like the expected role of women in western society until the liberating 1960's), and, predominantly, in encouraging the menfolk to participate.
In August 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the British regular army was composed of a small professional force consisting of 247,432 regular troops. It very soon became apparent that this was desperately inadequate for the task at hand, and that large-scale conscription was imperative. Lord Kitchener promoted a campaign publicised by his famous poster - "Your Country Needs You" which encouraged over one million men to enlist by January 1915. But the rate of casualties in the war was so great that this soon proved insufficient. There was no alternative but to implement compulsory conscription and in January 1916 the Military Service Act was passed, imposing conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41 with the exception of clergymen, teachers, some industrial workers, conscientious objectors and those deemed medically unfit. In May a second Act extended conscription to married men. However, conscription was not popular, and many men failed to respond to the call-up. In order to promote conscription, Charles Fitzgerald, a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy, founded the Order of the White Feather. This organisation originally located in Folkestone in south-east England, consisted of thirty women. It aimed at persuading the women of England to encourage men to join the army, often to shame those who had not yet recruited by handing them white feathers, symbolising cowardice. The activities of these women were reported in the press and the movement rapidly spread nationwide. In support of this campaign the army published posters with texts that read: "Is your Best Boy wearing khaki? If not, don't you think he should be?" or "My boy, I don't want you to go, but if I were you I should go." An organisation called the Active Service League encouraged women to sign a pledge that stated: "At this hour of England's grave peril and desperate need I do hereby pledge myself most solemnly in the name of my King and Country to persuade every man I know to offer his services to the country, and I also pledge myself never to be seen in public with any man who, being in every way fit and free for service, has refused to respond to his country's call." Whereas women at home would increasingly replace the formerly predominantly male workforce in factories and fields, in the early part of the war, encouraging their men to participate, and failing that, to shame them into it, was one of the principal roles that women took on.
While on crusade in 1098, one of the leading participants of the First Crusade, Stephen of Blois wrote letters to his wife Adela in which he addressed her as “sweetest friend and wife” and “my beloved.” But a certain coldness was to come between them. When the siege of Antioch stretched on for several months, Stephen and other crusaders, believing that their situation was very weak and that defeat was inevitable, packed up and left, abandoning their brothers at arms, as it turned out just one day before Antioch fell to the Crusader army. Stephen returned to France in ignominy and there he had to face Adela, his "sweetest friend" who berated him for failing to accomplish his commitment to reach Jerusalem. She shamed him for his cowardice, even, it is said, during their lovemaking, constantly urging that he return to the Holy Land and fulfil his vow. She pestered him until Stephen finally gave way, and in order to redeem his honour returned to Antioch in 1101, in what was to become known as the Crusade of the Faint-Hearted, because several of the participants numbered among those who like Stephen had turned back from Antioch. This time he did manage to reach Jerusalem, but instead of returning home where perhaps he might again have faced condemnation, Stephen stayed on in the Holy Land. On May 17, 1102 he took part in the Second Battle of Ramla where, after being besieged in the tower of the city he was captured and beheaded.
It may not have been in character for Adela, who, by the way was the daughter of William the Conqueror, but one cannot help wondering if she might not have felt, as later on presumably, some members of the Order of the White Feather might have felt, a stab of regret when her husband did not return from the battlefield.