Girl, You’re In the Army Now

In January, then-US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat. Each service branch was supposed to have developed a plan for putting women into combat by May 15; they say they have, but as of this writing no details had been revealed. I’m anxiously waiting to see how this takes shape. Not because I yearn to sign up (I’d miss my husband and toddler!) but because I am a passionate believer in the right of women to serve in the infantry, providing they are physically up to it.

At a guess, lots of other fantasy authors share this belief with me. I’m basing my guess on the growing number of them who build equal opportunities for men and women into their worlds. Women soldiers, women bodyguards, women pirates, women mercenaries, women gang leaders. Women kicking a**, women pulverizing monsters, women trouncing mighty-thewed males. I guess it’s the backlash to the backlash? Or maybe there’s a subset of male authors (the authors who do this tend to be male) who like the idea of indomitable women warriors so much that they just can’t help themselves.

It always messes with my suspension of disbelief. According to the San Diego Center for Health,

Men on average have a 20 percent to 25 percent higher lung capacity than females; women have 30 percent less maximal cardiac output. The average female will be 10 percent smaller, 25 pounds lighter, have 8 percent to 10 percent more body fat, and less dense bones.

Even selecting for the creme de la creme, even assuming that women soldiers are all elite athletes, their male counterparts are going to have a physical edge you can’t wish away.(1)

That doesn’t particularly matter in today’s heavily mechanized and automated armies. It doesn’t matter enough anyway, to justify keeping women out of combat. But in fantasy worlds? Without guns, Humvees, or C130s? It’s hard to think of any rationale for a commander to select women over men, unless he she happens to be Jackrum.

Still and all, you can handwave around that. Posit that every woman in your fictional army is a cross between Serena Williams and Yawara-chan, and I can’t say “No, they’re not!” ‘Cos maybe they are.

The real reason I don’t buy women soldiers in fantasy is the economics.

Fantasy worlds do not tend to have washing machines, combine harvesters, supermarkets, or refrigerators. Keeping people fed and clothed under pre-industrial conditions is labor-intensive. Our own not-so-distant history suggests it requires the labor of all the women and most of the men, except for a tiny elite of both sexes, all the time. And then there’s the little matter of the next generation. In a society without modern medicine, the birth rate needs to be sky-high just to keep the population steady. It’s hard to imagine how any significant number of women could be spared from these vital tasks, except for ideological reasons in a society that is violently breaking itself to remake itself, such as Maoist China (pre-industrial in the remoter regions then).

This is an equal-opportunity army.

This is not.

Ideology, I conclude, is what drives authors to retrofit equal opportunities into their fantasy worlds. They’re welding their own ideas about how things ought to be onto otherwise well-thought out worlds. And that’s a damn shame.

Ideology has no place in fiction. The created world is its own thing: it must make organic sense, obeying the laws of narrative plausibility, just as a house must conform to the laws of stress and strain or else fall down. One could of course design a whole fantasy world around the concept of equal opportunities for the sexes, and authors have, but what I more often see in practice is ideology wedged in at an oblique angle, like a bad eyebrow piercing.

Shall we agree that the beauty of fantasy is precisely that it need not conform to real-world ideologies? That it can offer an escape from them–an escape which is harder to find than ever in our ideologically saturated age?

Women should serve in the US infantry.

Not in medieval fantasy armies.

***

1. The usual counter-argument here is, “But it’s fantasy! It’s all about wish-fulfillment!” I guess this works for some people but it leaves me cold. Precisely because it’s fantasy, the realistic bits need to be realistic.

Related Posts

I, Shebot

I, Shebot

Comic Review: Tomie, Volume I – Junji Ito

Comic Review: Tomie, Volume I – Junji Ito

Popular Posts 6/1-6/8 2013

Popular Posts 6/1-6/8 2013

  • Pingback: TIME MACHINE: Past Popular Posts - Amazing Stories()

  • Pingback: Amazing Stories, the ‘Selfie’ and the Lack of Gratuitous Diversity | Nerd Caliber()

  • Pingback: Concern trolling and “gratuitous diversity” | Epiphany 2.0()

  • Pingback: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler | Far Beyond Reality()

  • Pingback: Just Media Love | Chaos in Khandar: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler()

  • Actually, I’ve done a lot of research on this, and there have always been women combatants. It’s moderately rare on the whole, very rare in some times and places, and fairly common in some places — the ancient Sarmatians or 19th century Dahomey, frex. Often they had to “pass” as men, but this happened surprisingly often.

    > Our own not-so-distant history suggests it requires the labor of all the women and most of the men, except for a tiny elite of both sexes, all the time.

    — well, no. The general rule of thumb was that a preindustrial economy could, by an all-out effort, mobilize about 10% of its total population for war. Amost all such economies have substantial underemployment, always seasonally and usually overall as well.

    >In a society without modern medicine, the birth rate needs to be sky-high just to keep the population steady. It’s hard to imagine how any significant number of women could be spared from these vital tasks

    — again, not necessarily. Eg., in premodern and early modern Europe, up to 25% of women at times never married (or had children), and the average age of marriage was around 26.

    • S.M., thanks for this! Your points are well taken. Of course you are absolutely right that many women in premodern Europe did not marry. I had mentally taken them out of the equation because, to the best of my knowledge, they were mostly nuns.

      One could plausibly envisage a pre-industrial fantasy world where a standing military soaked up the men *and* women who would have been monks and nuns in our world.

      Fantasy worlds do tend to have standing armies, rather than fyrds or seasonal levies such as existed in medieval Europe. The latter would be more realistic of course, as you point out.

      WRT 19th century Dahomey — yes, I should have remembered this myself! I recently reread Flash For Freedom!, in which Flashman nearly gets gutted by the King of Dahomey’s female bodyguards. Highly recommended if you have not read it, in fact the whole series is.

      • >I had mentally taken them out of the equation because, to the best of my knowledge, they were mostly nuns.

        — no, they were mostly just poor.

        The area west and north of a line between St. Petersburg and Trieste had a very distinctive reproductive pattern at least from the late medieval period on.

        Historical demographers, with stunning originality, call it the “north-west European family pattern”.

        Essentially they combined a taboo against two married couples living under the same roof with a taboo against getting married unless you met certain minimal economic standards, which below the class of substantial property owners usually required that both sexes spend a decade or so working as a “servant” after leaving home. “Servant” meant more or less what we call “employee”.

        Incidentally most people in England did leave home, unless they stood to inherit a farm or something of that nature. Less than a third died in or near their parish of birth; over 10% of every generation from all over the country moved to London, where far more people died than were born.

        If you couldn’t meet the minimum (which required enough to be an independent householder, albeit often on a very modest scale) you couldn’t get married; community pressure prevented it. And if you couldn’t marry, you were never really considered an adult.

        This is why anxiety about marriage is such a common theme in folk-tales and so on from that period. It as an essential step to a what was considered a full and self-respecting life but it wasn’t one you could count on being able to take. You had to work hard and be careful.

        In England, which is what I’m most familiar with, a minimum of 5% (after the post-Black Death population decline) and a maximum of 25% (late Stuart times) never did marry. Women in that category usually died childless, and probably at least technically -virgo intacta-.

        Ordinary people married rather late, usually in their mid twenties, quite often in their thirties, and had relatively small families — 4 was about average, of which an average of slightly more than two would live to adulthood. There were plenty of really big families, but also plenty of childless couples, or families with one or two.

        Really poor people generally didn’t marry. Well-to-do people married earlier and had bigger families. It’s pretty much the opposite of the pattern we’re used to.

        Most people (particularly men) never saw their grandchildren except possibly as infants, because they died in their 50’s and 60’s, right about the time their eldest children got married.

        In the American colonies, where land was cheap, food was cheap, wages were high and men outnumbered women, English people married much earlier and much more universally than back in Europe.

        Particularly, women almost all married and married quite young, late teens or early twenties. They had about twice as many children as their cousins back in the old country and many more of the children survived long enough to marry themselves, so the population doubled roughly every 25 years.

        >Highly recommended if you have not read it, in fact the whole [Flashman] series is.

        — ditto; great stuff.

        • This is fantastic stuff, S.M. I wish I had done a tenth of your research before shooting my mouth off 😀 Funny: that bit about “a taboo against getting married unless you met certain minimal economic standards” strikes a distinctly modern chord.

          Getting off topic here, but what line of research led you to find out so much about medieval European marriage and family formation patterns?

  • CE, did you notice this?

    “It’s swell that so many authors envision a universe where men and women are equals, so long as they do it out of a sense of writing a wrong. ”

    Typo of the week!

    No, I completely agree with you: If the military really believed men and women were equal, they’d wear the same uniforms, have the same haircut, jewellery and make up standards and have the same physical fitness standards. Well, I almost completely agree. I don’t see the harm in a short ponytail — for either sex 🙂

    The strongest women will still be weaker than the strongest men, but in the middle of the bell curve, there clearly are women who can meet today’s fitness standards, and they should be treated identically to their male counterparts.

    Do write that post about femmes fatales–that is a gripe of my own, too, and I’d like to read your take!

  • Excellent article.

    And you hit the nail right on the head: “providing they are physically up to it.”

    It’s one thing to armchair quarterback, never having served in the military, and claim that women are equal to men when it comes to combat. But they aren’t. Even in today’s mechanized services, there’s still a need for physical strength. The Marines and Army still march, carrying huge rucksacks and pounds and pounds of gear even some men can’t handle.

    It’s true that guns are the equalizer, putting women on an equal footing with men, mano e womano for the first time in history, but there’s more to war than squeezing a trigger.

    I also wonder at the mentality of combat. Men are single-minded- as recently demonstrated on an episode of Mythbusters. Women are more multi-taskers. That makes me wonder if it would be as easy for a woman to shoot and kill an opponent or run them through with a bayonet as it would be for a man. we men are naturally aggressive (the parallel parking experiment on aforementioned Mythubusters episode proved that).

    It’s swell that so many authors envision a universe where men and women are equals, so long as they do it out of a sense of writing a wrong. But I propose men and women are different for a reason. We have strengths and weaknesses that our opposite gender make up for. We’re a team, but not in everything, e.g. war.

    Having only served a paltry 4 years in the USAF I can tell you with certainty not all women are up to the task. We had badasses who could do a better job than a lot of our men, but we also had a lot of dainty weaklings who got by batting their eyes and putting on too much make up. If the military really believed men and women were equal, they’d wear the same uniforms, have the same haircut, jewlery and make up standards and have the same physical fitness standards.

    I’m all for treating the genders with equal respect, but I think we, writers included, need to recognize that not all jobs are for all genders, that men and woman are different- all in the same way we respect handicapped people but don’t expect them to do jobs they are physically incapable of. Respect the person, not the plumbing.

    (Funny you should write this… I was thinking about an article for next week griping about the most overused element of 21st century SFF; Femme Fatales. I guess great minds, even separated by gender, think alike.)

    • in regards to your standards mention – that’s exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

      There are plenty of army around the world (some every bit as advanced and professional) that have integrated men and women in ranks for decades.

    • NB–re: the stereotype of women as multi-taskers / less aggressive; this may be true for *most* women, such as the “weaklings” you knew in the USAF. But like all stereotypes, it hurts the subset to whom it does not apply.. Men and women are biologically different, I agree, but there are always outliers who should be given a fair chance.