My four year old son’s favourite colour is pink. Will it still be his favourite colour when he is fourteen, I wonder? Maybe he will just prefer another colour by then and, ‘what does it matter, anyway?’ I hear you ask. I question whether he has a choice or if it has already been determined that pink is just not an option for a boy. Maybe the question, ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ will get nothing but a shrug of the shoulders from my then fourteen-year-old. But, as I see him running around with his classmates, unconscious that there might be different expectations on the futures of the boys when compared with the girls, it makes me think about what else we have already decided for him.
Looming large is the influence of the ‘alpha’ male. Whether it is the brash successful businessman, the rippling sportsman or the school bully, boys learn from an early age that these characters seemingly come out on top. Boys come to realise that they either have to adopt these characteristics or negotiate a path alongside them. This pressure on boys and men, to be this ‘alpha’ male, is born out of the warrior ideal. If you think of war, you will think of men. Men as fighters, as soldiers. War is thought of in male terms – aggressive, decisive, rational. It shapes our idea of what it means to be a man – a warrior, a defender. What does this mean for women? Well, if you think of women, you think of peace. Women as mothers, as peacemakers. Thinking of women as the opposite of this warrior stereotype shapes what it means to be a woman too.
The military is run by men, and it is populated by men – yes, there are women but they are in a significant minority of about 10% in the UK. What does this mean? Well, like my son as he grows up, women have to find a way to fit in. I know… I was one of these women – I served for over ten years as a naval engineer. So, although on paper women bring diversity, when you join young and are trained together you most likely start to think in the same way too. For me, it has taken the transition from military service into research to gradually realise that by ‘getting on with the job’ I felt my gender was irrelevant – I have heard it called ‘gender-blind’. It stopped me noticing that some of my military experiences were affected by being a woman and the dominance of men in the military hierarchy was affecting how military strategy was developed. Sharing the experience of this transition from military service to research and what this has revealed to me can help the military to realise its blindspots.
By recognising these blindspots, it is possible to challenge the assumptions made about women and men in relation to war. This will start to break what feels like an impenetrable hold over what society, expects from men and women. My research strives to understand the involvement of combatants who were women in order to challenge the mainstream narratives about war and question a history of war written by men. Specifically, the study will expose the forgotten stories of women involved in outreach programmes during the Malayan Emergency and women employed on covert operations in Northern Ireland. Questioning the accepted landscape of these campaigns, I am asking how women’s involvement can be used to help us to think about the realities on the ground of these contested operations. As the British Army is refocussing on traditional forms of war, I am also speaking to veterans of the Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan and asking how it can be that even this recent history is starting to be ignored. Although in a minority, unravelling these stories and listening to forgotten voices can help us to question how we think of the contemporary female combatant and broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman today.
We are in the era of #metoo and #thisgirlcan, and it is one hundred years since women enlisted in the British military and the first women’s votes. Now is the time to question the place of women in the public conversation about war and in doing so, loosen the hold of this warrior ideal on what it means to be a man. I want my son to grow up in a world where he is not limited by the pink and blue divide and his life can be bettered by real diversity in what it means to be a man or a woman.