AS AN HISTORIAN, I can't say what the impact on women would be if we had a few females on the Joint Chiefs of Staff any more than I can say what it would do to us -- or for us -- if we had women on the Supreme Court or a woman president. It's never happened.
But history can help in what seems to be the most emotionally charged issue concerning the role of of women in the military. That is the question of women in combat. History can help here because having American women in combat is nothing new.
The subject of women in combat jobs has been confused in part because what civilians mean by the term "combat" and what the military means by it are not the same thing.
What civilians think of when they use the word "combat" is close, hand-to-hand conflict -- what might be called "mud and guts" action. The military use of the word, however, includes anything that goes on in what is arbitrarily defined as a "combat/hostile fire zone" by the secretary of defense. This definition includes many activities that aren't even likely to raise a sweat, much less involve any direct exposure to mud and/or guts. Typing, operating a radio, even cooking on a naval vessel on the high seas may be defined as "combat duty." Since I am a civilian, I will focus on women in mud and guts combat.
Mud and guts combat has become relatively effete -- I refuse to say effeminate -- in recent years. Two hundred years ago, when men were men and women were women, combat usually meant bayonets or hatchets at close quarters. Sometimes it meant muskets at 50 yards and once in a while rifles at 150 or 200 yards. Artillery was stationary once it was deployed so whatever its range -- which wasn't much by modern standards -- personnel attached to it were likely to come within reach of enemy bayonets if the tide of battle turned against them. Naval warfare in those days also meant close contact -- cannon balls at point-blank range followed up by boarding parties.
During the American Revolution there was a branch of the Continental Army referred to in Washington's general orders as the Women of the Army," which operated on the battlefields in support of artillery units and which staffed field hospitals. It included perhaps 20,000 women over the course of the war. The Continental Army had perhaps 100,000 soldiers over the same period. The Women of the Army were paid -- at least as frequently as the soldiers were -- were provided with rations for themselves and their children and were subject to military discipline.
In addition to Women of the Army, a smaller number of women served with the Continental Army as soldiers integrated with the male troops. Some of these enlisted disguised as men, but a good number enlisted and later filed for pensions using their own names and made no attempt to conceal their sex from fellow soldiers or officers, although they wore male clothing.
The best known example of such a woman was Margaret Corbin, who was wounded at an artillery station during the defense of Fort Washington in 1776 and was later posted to the Invalid Corps at West Point. Corbin is the only Revolutionary War veteran buried at West Point. Let me stress that these women soldiers were not a bunch of eccentrics. They were the sort of good, patriotic Americans from whom the members of the DAR are proud to claims descent.
Let me give just a couple of examples of the sort of female activity that was taken for granted during the era of the American Revolution. First the mud. Two Women of the Army were attached to companies under the command of Benedict Arnold when he was still a good guy leading an American force to invade Canada. He marched his troops through very rough country. On Nov. 1, 1775, they were slogging through a marshy area, and a young soldier from Connecticut named Abner Stocking recorded how he and one of these women managed:
"Entering the pond . . . and breaking the ice here and there with the butts of our guns and feet, as occasion required, we were soon waist deep in the mud and water. As is generally the case with youths, it came to my mind that a better path might be found than that of the more elderly guide. Attempting this, the water in a trice cooling my armpits, made me gladly return into the file. Now Mrs. Grier had got before me. My mind was humbled, yet astonished, at the exertions of this good woman. Her clothes more than waist high, she waded before me to firm ground.
And for the guts, lets take an example from the frontier theater of the Revolutionary War.
This episode began with a midnight attack by Indians on the cabin of one John Merrill. The dog's barking woke the man of the house and he opened the door to see what was going on. He was immediately shot and disabled. He called for his wife to get the door closed and bolted, which she did. But the Indian attackers used hatchets to cut a hole through the door and attempted to crawl through it. Mrs. Merrill, however, had an axe of her own and she killed or mortally wounded four Indians who put their heads inside the hole.
The Indians then attempted to enter through the fireplace. Mrs. Merrill heard the noise on the roof and threw a featherbed onto the fire. The material was highly inflammable and produced a heavy choking smoke. The attackers fell into the room blinded and gasping for breath. Mrs. Merrill dispatched them with her axe. Turning back to the door, she saw the last of the Indian force coming in through the hole and wounded him. As the lone survivor of this action, he returned to his village where a prisoner recorded the account.
Now what effects did this sort of activity have on women? First, it seems clear that they were able to do the job. While it is certainly true that some people of both sexes are physically incapable of participating effectively in mud and guts combat, it is equally true that there are and always have been many women more physically capable of such activity than some men are.
Eighteenth century women in combat were praised by their officers as well as by fellow soldiers.
The English ship, H.M.S. Goliath, was attached to Nelson's fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and, like other 18th century warships, there were women aboard. Their job during battle was to carry powder to the guns, drag the wounded away from the guns and to nurse any of the wounded who survived.
The muster book of the Goliath lists only four women: these were widows for whom a special ration had been authorized because, unlike wives, they could not be expected to share with a man. Probably there were about a dozen women on the Goliath. One of them went out of action and into labor during the Battle of the Nile and gave birth to a son in one of the spaces between the broadside guns.
How attitudes can change about things is reflected in a contemporary report of the incident. What are today portentously described as "problems relating to female sexuality" do not seem to have disturbed 18th century sailors or to have affected their fighting capability in the slightest.
"The women behaved as well as the men," runs the eyewitness report of the battle. "Some of the women were wounded, and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds. One woman bore a son in the heat of the action; she belongs to Edinburgh."
It seems clear that even if they threw boiling lye at Hessians or wounded British regulars with bayonets or disemboweled Indians with hatchets, American men continued to find American women desirable. In fact, it appears that 200 years ago men preferred women with such "manly" virtues as courage, integrity and loyalty to women who were cowardly, untrustworthy and deceitful. This suggests that a taste for the "I Love Lucy" type of female is acquired rather than innate, and that the "defeminization" of women that would occur if they were encouraged to develop soldierly virtues would not mean the end of male-female relationships and sex life as we have known it.
Women who participated in mud and guts combat remained perfectly capable of bearing and rearing children and of being loving wives and mothers. Deborah Sampson Gannett, the best known of the Revolutionary War women who joined the Continental Army disguised as men, married after the war and was the mother of three. Nancy Van Alstine, who was known as the Patriot Mother of the Mohawk Valley because of her success as an Indian fighter, was also the mother of 15.
One thing that participation in combat did not do, however, was to get women equal rights. In fact women who, because of property ownership, had been entitled to vote before the Revolution, were all disfranchised less than a generation afterwards.
Similarly, that women were present on Civil War battlefields as soldiers and nurses did not prevent Congress from deliberately excluding women when a constitutional amendment extended the franchise to former slaves after peace was won.
It would seem to be the lesson of history that the "right" to participate in mud and guts combat hasn't been worth much to American women as women. By saying this I don't mean to belittle the heroism of these female soldiers and nurses -- their activities were worth plenty to America and to American women. But it was of no benefit at all to them simply as women.
More to the point, however, and something few people seem to realize, is the fact that today's women already have the "right" to participate in mud and guts combat.
Whether women should be permitted to participate in national defense in that manner is an issue that was long ago decided in the affirmative. There is no law keeping women out of the trenches. As recently as the present decade women have been awarded combat decorations including the purple heart and collected hostile fire pay.
Women have been assigned to combat units. Women now receive the same basic training in the Army that men do, including hard physical conditioning and instruction in the use of hand grenades and rifles.
Furthermore, the laws that are on the books prohibiting women from serving in combat zones -- the Title X legislation -- specifically exempt women nurses. And surely women nurses are as female as any of the rest of us. w
Much more interesting than the question of mud and guts combat, however, is the question of the nice clean assignments that the military calls "combat duty." These are jobs that are far more glamorous and desirable than nursing in front-line hospitals. These are jobs that lead to promotion to the top ranks of the service and provide training that is worth thousands of dollars in the civilian job market.
Ironically, these are also jobs that are a good deal safer and less demanding physically than many "non-combat" assignments women are now eligible for. I'm talking about jobs as fighter pilots and navigators, as commanders of sea-going vessels and those highly sought-after "for men only" assignments as officers on nuclear submarines.
Unfortunately history can't tell us what would happen if women were allowed to compete for the sort of combat assignment that leads to advancement in the military hierarchy to the positions of real authority and power. It's never happened.
Of the women who served with the regular army during the Revolution, I know of none who rose above the rank of sergeant. None of the women in today's military are on the kind of career track that seems likely to lead to appointment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So I cannot say what would happen if women were recognized as equal to other Americans and allowed a crack at some of the good combat jobs as well as the nasty ones a few of us have always had.
But somehow I don't believe it would be anything very bad.