Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Oz on frontline servicewomen

News that women will be permitted to serve on the frontlines in Australia's military has stirred a swirl of debate in that country.
Calling it "a significant and major cultural change," Defence Minister Stephen Smith last month announced the move to open to women positions in infantry combat, in the artillery, in special forces, and in naval clearance diving. Once it's implemented the change will put Australia's military in a gender-neutral camp along with Canada and New Zealand.
According to a Defence Ministry timeline, the 1st women to serve in Australia were nurses -- as early as the 1800s in Wales, and overseas, in the Boer War waged in South Africa, in 1901. More than 60,000 Australian women served in auxiliary military roles during World War II.
A little over 300 women now serve overseas, but they've been barred from certain positions. The announced change is supposed to take place in 2015.
Among those who've commented is Journalism Professor Catharine Lumby (below right) of the University of New South Wales. She posed an important question in her Sydney Morning Herald op-ed:

What's interesting about the current debate about women being allowed to fight on the frontline is the way the female body is automatically placed centre stage. Critics of the move to put women into front-line battle frequently paint vivid pictures of how shocking it would be to see women return from the fray with terrible injuries.
But why shouldn't we feel equally revolted by the sight of the bodies of men returning home in body bags or without their legs?

Lumby further challenged the essentialist argument that the change is anti-feminist, advanced in an op-ed in which University of Melbourne Ethics Professor Clive Hamilton argued that combat is masculine, and "[w]omen's morality differs from that of men."
Meanwhile, Australian columnist Angela Shanahan (below left) saw in the relative indifference of younger generations to gender differences an indication that soon the issue will be moot. In her words,

The young are making feminism passe.

Whatever that declaration may mean at some point in the future, even more recent news -- of the 2d servicewoman's complaint of sexual assault in as many months -- demonstrates that Australia's military now must do more to fight violence against its own fighters.

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