18 JANUARY 2018
BY REBECCA LEES, PhD candidate in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge

The recent headlines surrounding the army’s new “inclusive” recruitment drive show how persistently some wish to cling to the stereotype of the unemotional white, male, heterosexual soldier.

In attempting to break down the stereotypes that men don’t cry, women aren’t listened to and gay or Muslim soldiers aren’t accepted, the army was criticised for “neglecting the main group of people who are interested in joining”.

This follows the outcry expressed during the review of the ban on women serving in frontline roles, when it was claimed that the move was motivated only by political correctness and would be “paid for in blood”.

Such narratives serve to construct and reinforce a stereotype of what a soldier is, in a process that depends on a reduction of the female and that can be traced to antiquity.

Take, for example, the Carian queen Artemisia, who combined aggression and intellect to save the Persian forces from defeat in the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. King Xerxes is reported to have remarked on her behaviour: “my men have become women and my women, men” (Herodotus, Histories 8.88). Though Xerxes means to compliment Artemisia, this pithy phrase preserves the status of the military as one where men dominate. Artemisia’s sex threatens to destabilise the norm, and so Xerxes recasts her as a man.

Written around 440 BCE, it would be easy to take Herodotus’ account as an example of grossly out-dated sexism. Yet a much more recent example contains eerie echoes of Xerxes’ remarks, when a male colleague of Nancy Wake, an illustrious WWII servicewoman in the British Special Operations Executive, characterises her thus: “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.” Again intended as praise, Captain Henri Tardivat’s encomium renders fighting and femaleness incompatible.

When female fighters are strong, they are cast as male, but when they fall, writers fall back on their femininity. Thus Camilla, the most proficient fighter in the Aeneid’s war between Trojan and allied Italian forces, is only killed when she is distracted by an opponent’s shiny armour. Virgil explains that her downfall was “the love that a woman has for booty and spoils” (Aeneid 11.782) – even though Virgil locates her upbringing in the woods, where she has animal skins for clothes. Camilla’s may not be a true story, but the fiction depends on the plausibility of female military prowess (by way of comparison, it cannot be the case that there are no women capable of the same fitness as male frontline combatants, whatever the average biological differences between the sexes). Virgil’s fantasy also exemplifies male anxieties about female power and the techniques deployed to contain it.

When Nancy Wake becomes a character in her own drama, she too is reduced to sexist stereotypes that inaccurately represent her life. Just as Virgil was not content to showcase a skilled female warrior and leave it at that, a 1987 television mini-series judged that the story of Nancy’s military exploits would be incomplete without a male love interest. In fact Nancy had no such affair after being number one on the Gestapo’s most wanted list had forced her to leave her husband in France. Not stopping at giving Nancy the erotic potential apparently required of a female character, the mini-series also allowed her character to find time to fry up bacon and eggs for her male colleagues. As Nancy puts it herself: “There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money, and even if there had been why would I be frying it when I had men to do that sort of thing?”.

If the army’s latest recruitment strategy succeeds in creating a more diverse armed forces, we need to be careful about the types of narratives we place on this new generation of heroes (this article focuses on women, but the same applies to all minorities). The year of the television series on Nancy Wake – 1987 – may already seem like ancient history to some, let alone the composition of Virgil’s Aeneid two thousand years ago. But the domain of sport, another area where women’s participation is becoming more prominent, provides a contemporary and sober warning that we are still not above placing sexist narratives on successful women. When the England women’s football squad returned from the 2015 World Cup, the Football Association came under fire for tweeting that the footballers were “going back to being mothers, partners and daughters”. Not only is it hard to imagine the FA issuing a statement that when the men’s team aren’t playing football, they’re being “fathers, partners and sons”, but once again the rhetoric separates participation in a male-dominated arena, in this case football, from being a woman, in this case defining and valuing woman by her relation to other family members rather than by her status as an individual.

We are entitled to scoff at the transparent sexism in the examples from Herodotus and Virgil only if our own depictions of female soldiers stand up to scrutiny. If 2018 is to be the “Year of the Woman”, let us allow narratives of the female warrior neither to suppress her femaleness nor to dilute her achievements as a soldier.

About Author

Rebecca Lees is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her research examines how gender norms are entrenched in language. Her broader interests include the engagement between academia and public policy, having recently worked for the Centre for Science and Policy in Cambridge