Will Women Join the Ranks of Esteemed Veterans?

Dozens of women soldiers are dying in Iraq — and no one seems to care. Why do I say that? Because the outcry that many expected over the combat deaths of American women in Iraq has not taken place.

This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the war in Iraq is the first in which centuries-old American fantasies about the female soldier are being tested.

Women soldiers have always had a particularly paradoxical role in the United States, a nation that ties the bearing of arms closely to citizenship –and to masculinity. We love our fantasies about female soldiers — fantasies that link their violence to their sexuality — but the realities are going to prove harder to take, and may bring home just how high a cost the Iraq war has for us.

It’s no coincidence that the two most famous soldiers of the Iraq war are both women: Jessica Lynch, whose dramatic rescue from the Iraqi doctors who cared for her was staged and filmed by the U.S. armed forces. And Lynndie England, whose posed photos with a leashed prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison continue to reverberate throughout the world.

The media images of these two soldiers reinforce our iconic fantasies about women and war — that female soldiers are either helpless victims or dangerous sexual deviants. But what about the women who continue to fight, and sometimes to die, off-camera?

It’s a question we’ve been asking for more than two centuries. Both feminists and anti-feminists in the years leading up to the Civil War saw military service as the ultimate outcome of the women’s rights movement — and as the ultimate test of women’s patriotism.

Women’s rights advocates of the 1840s pointed to actual Revolutionary War soldiers such as Deborah Sampson as proof that women were capable of martial valor and thus should gain access to the full privileges of citizenship.

To others, images of female soldiers suggested a sexual ambiguity and aggressiveness that seemed incompatible with traditional gender roles. As the debates over women’s citizenship raged on, Americans devoured cheap novels about women who cross-dressed and followed their lovers into battle. But actual female soldiers had to fight against these fantasies to gain acceptance.

The women who cross-dressed as soldiers in the Civil War and then published memoirs about their experiences had to portray themselves as almost ludicrously respectable if their autobiographies were to succeed in reaching a wide audience. Today’s U.S. women soldiers don’t have to cross-dress, of course. But they still have to struggle against stereotypes that they are either masculinized or sexually out-of-control when they join the armed forces. As Kayla Williams wrote in her recent Iraq combat memoir, women soldiers get to choose between being seen as either sluts or bitches.

The caricature of the female soldier as a sex-crazed thrill-seeker continued to afflict 20th-century women soldiers. In the forties, it appeared in the form of a cartoon of a World War II WAC inside a tank, training its gun on her male comrade in order to get him to go out on a date. Soft-core porn posters and videos that feature busty women in skimpy camo bikinis with assault weapons continue to be hot sellers, as they have since the 1980s.

In recent weeks, a Virginia candidate for the U.S. Senate, James Webb, has been dogged by his 1979 observation that a Naval Academy dorm was “a horny woman’s dream.” Of course, such sexy images are predicated on the notion that women are not real soldiers, since they are barred from combat. But is there anyone out there who still believes that there are distinct “front lines” in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We may think we know something about the female soldier’s experience. In the 19th century, women who fought in war made careers afterward by staging theatrical reenactments of their exploits or writing autobiographies. In the 20th century, there were plenty of movies, many of them comic, about G.I. Janes and Private Benjamins. However, we have rarely heard from female combat veterans.

But we will. Soon, they’ll be among us in great numbers, as our friends, neighbors and co-workers. It’s a safe bet that their stories won’t conform to the fantasies we’ve nurtured about them.

The real test of our changing consciousness will come when the hundreds of maimed women soldiers emerge from rehab and resume their lives among us. That’s when the American public may realize that women soldiers are neither victims in need of rescue nor sexual deviants. And maybe, just maybe, the reality of women soldiers who no longer look good in camo bikinis will force us to reconsider our old fantasies about women, guns and national identity.

Laura Browder, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a writer for the History News Service and the author of "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities" (2000).

October, 2006