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The right to fight: New Zealand women on the battle lines

We were the first country in the world to give women the vote, in the name of equal rights. But if a military crisis saw New Zealanders called up for the draft, would we be prepared to send our daughters to war alongside our sons?

Who knows if there’s even a name for it, that hard curve at the top of the foot that the freckle-faced “Preacher’s Daughter” used like a sledgehammer slam to the neck of world champion sportsfighter Ronda Rousey. Call it the Holly Holm special.

“Ba-boom!” yelled the commentator, as Rousey hit the canvas. “Ronda goes limp, Holly jumps all over her, hammer fist and she is out cold.”

That brutal mid-November 2015 cage fight has been called one of the biggest upsets in women’s professional sport and played out to a record crowd at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, usually reserved for Aussie Rules. And who says women don’t rate: the pay-per-view revenue alone brought in $60 million (watch the blow-by-blow replay on bloodyelbow.com).

Undefeated until that night, Rousey was voted the Best Female Athlete Ever in an ESPN poll in September, nudging out Serena Williams. A mouthy 60kg slab of muscle, she’s the highest-paid fighter, male or female, in the full-contact combat sport of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and a pin-up for equal rights, if a controversial one.

“Fighting is not a man’s thing, it is a human thing,” she told Good Morning America in March. “To say that it is anti-woman is an anti-feminist statement. I’m the biggest draw in the sport and I’m a woman.”

Rousey may have her fans – she’s on the cover of a new Xbox game – but J. Longson, from Kawerau, is not one of them. “It is bad enough men doing this kind of organised thuggery, but for women it is shocking,” he wrote in a letter to the editor, published in the New Zealand Herald after the fight. “Women are mothers and nurses and things like school teachers, not thugs.”

And in a way, he’s right: 122 years after New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote, they’re still far more likely than men to be employed in the “caring professions”, such as nursing, teaching and social work. And despite most combat roles in the military being open to both sexes since 2000 – years ahead of traditional allies including the US, the UK and Australia – a Ministry of Defence review in 2014 found numbers of women in the force had actually fallen in the previous five years. They’re paid less, too.

A recruitment and retention campaign has begun to reverse that trend and it’s just one of many professions where the gender ratio remains stubbornly skewed out of balance. (Look up “New Zealand architects” on Wikipedia and only one woman merits a mention on the list – and she’s dead.) But while the massive success of The Hunger Games has turned Katniss Everdeen into a pop-culture icon, one arrow at a time, in the real world warrior women are missing in action across the “protective services”, including the police and fire service.

So is that really a woman’s natural lot in life – to wipe bums, not kick butt? Or is Ronda Rousey right, that fighting is a feminist issue, after all?

Last year the first female recruits to be drafted into the Norwegian army went into training. “Rights and duties should be the same for all,” MP Laila Gustavsen told the media, after parliament passed legislation making Norway the first European or NATO country to extend military conscription to both sexes. (Gustavsen’s teenage daughter, Marte, was shot during the Utoeya Island massacre in 2011, but survived).

A champion of gender equality, Norway also has a quota requiring public companies to fill at least 40 per cent of the seats on their boards with women. But the military, in particular, has always been a symbol of power in society. In Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish women’s militia has grown into a key strike force against Isis – making up a third of the resistance movement, as female freedom fighters take up arms to protect not only their families and land, but also themselves. “It’s about the right to democracy, freedom, equality and education,” says one, in an interview posted on a US news website.

It remains to be seen whether Western democracies have the stomach for female soldiers coming home in body bags, but the face of the frontline is already changing. In 2016, the US lifted its ban on women serving in close-combat roles, and Britain followed suit (again trailing behind New Zealand, as they did with giving women the vote). Retired navy captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner, who flew attack aircraft and was the first American woman to command a naval aviation squadron, has described the British army as anachronistic for sanctioning gender discrimination.

“The millennial generation has grown up in a gender-integrated society, competing as individuals in education and the workplace,” she wrote in an opinion piece in New Scientist magazine. “One way or the other, British women will fight as infantry in the next major war.”

In New Zealand, the final barriers fell when the SAS (Special Air Service) opened to women in 2011; naval women were unable to go to sea until 1989. The NZ Defence Force confirmed a number of female personnel are currently deployed overseas, but wouldn’t say how many or where they’re based, citing “operational security reasons”. Four years ago, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, a 26-year-old medic from Christchurch, became the first New Zealand woman lost in action since a nurse was killed in Vietnam. Two other Kiwi soldiers travelling with Baker also died when their Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

A combined memorial service at Burnham Military Camp in Christchurch for (from left) Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris, who were killed in Afghanistan in 2012

Conscription has been off the table here since 1972, when Labour (under Norman Kirk) ended compulsory military training. In a crisis, any decision to bring back the draft would be made by the government of the day. However feminist commentator Deborah Russell, a senior lecturer in accountancy at Massey University, sees no reason why women should get special treatment.

“It’s a matter of absolute commitment to equality,” she says. “As a young person, a free democratic society was something I believed in deeply and I’d still fight for that today. If we’re going to ask men to go and die in wars, we have to ask women, too.”

At 50, Russell is probably too old for the draft. But as the mother of three teenage girls, sticking to her guns would not be an easy call. “Somehow, women going into the military offends our notions of them as carers or nurturers who need protecting. But men get captured by enemy forces and are raped and tortured; the capacity to be harmed by an enemy soldier is not gender specific.

“If I’m going to send my daughters’ friends and my nephews to war, I have to also send my daughters. Then I’d have to think through whether we are really committed to fighting. If it’s my children or me on the line, I’d have to be sure it’s something worth fighting for.”

In World War II, women broke with convention by wearing trousers and mobilising into factories. Now, if there was a full-scale war and New Zealanders faced the draft, Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner Jackie Blue believes excluding women would be illegal.

A former breast cancer specialist and a mother of two, Blue was a National MP when an amendment to the Human Rights Act was passed in 2007, removing an exemption that allowed women to be barred from active combat.

“You could argue that if women were not called up, that would be discrimination,” she says. “We’re striving for gender equality in so many different areas and this is just another aspect of achieving it. Let’s hope we never get to that, but it would be hypocritical to say women shouldn’t fight.”

Women already serve on the “frontline” in our prisons, where there’s a roughly even split of male and female prison officers and an almost zero pay gap. That’s not only positive role-modelling for prisoners, but reflects the world they’ll return to back in the community, says Blue, who notes female officers are expected to hold their own in a riot situation. “And they do.”

In reality, she says, civilians in a war zone are in greater danger than soldiers on the battlefield. Women have also been recognised by the United Nations as having a special role in peacekeeping and conflict prevention, and the rise of technological warfare means there’s less reliance on brute physical strength. Apparently women make excellent snipers.

“The nature of conflict has changed vastly; a lot of it is very tactical now. You’ve got to throw the book away and start from scratch with people’s capabilities and potential, and not have any discrimination over being a woman and what you can and can’t do.”

At the age of 26, Auckland University history and politics graduate Mahala Rose Harwood would be prime picking for the draft. Currently living in Paris, where she plans to do volunteer work with refugees, she’s been an outspoken feminist since high school and edits an arts and culture magazine.

Although she opposes military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harwood supports our peacekeeping role and is “as comfortable with the thought of women being called up as I am with the thought of men”. However, she believes mothers with young children, single fathers and caregivers for the disabled should be exempt.

“In terms of strategy, we could do with a heck of a lot more woman power. We’re good at that shit!” she says. And despite being petite, Harwood reckons she’d rock in the army. “My size doesn’t negate whether I’d be a good markswoman. In hand-to-hand combat, I might struggle. But I’ve been in my fair share of fights, usually sticking up for my little sister, and I can pack a punch.”

Aucklander Mahala Rose Harwood in Paris, where she plans to work with refugees. The outspoken young feminist believes women have as much to offer in a military crisis as men.

Right now, the New Zealand Defence Force has “feet on the ground” in 10 countries for security and peacekeeping missions, including troops deployed to Iraq in April 2015 as part of a coalition force training local soldiers.

But with Europe under strain from the refugee crisis and a deteriorating situation in the Middle East, military historian Chris Pugsley doesn’t rule out the possibility of New Zealand being drawn into an international conflict on a much larger scale. “Throw in some bad famines and global warming and it may not be a war as such, but a collapse of administration and order that sees a requirement for mobilisation,” he says.

A retired lieutenant colonel, Pugsley was a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK for 13 years (he now lives in Waikanae and has several publishing projects on the go). Despite occasional friction with our trans-Tasman neighbour, he says we’re lucky to have Australia as a buffer to our north.

“Look at the problems Australia is facing and the opprobrium they’re gathering. They’re closing their eyes to terrible injustices in Nauru and Papua New Guinea simply to keep them out. And we haven’t addressed the impact of rising sea levels in the Pacific yet.

“The fact that you can finish a jail term and immediately be put in detention without any rights at all… There are all the signs of a society adjusting to new realities – and we don’t know where that will take us.”

In the 1970s, Pugsley set up and commanded the first Commissioning Course in New Zealand, which later grew into the Officer Cadet School (until then, candidates were sent to officer training schools in England). His first intake was dominated by women, who quickly proved their worth. On one occasion he recalls, members of a regular platoon were brought in and each officer cadet was put in charge of a four-man group for a challenge that pushed them to their physical and psychological limits.

“Towards the end of the exercise, this young sylph-like female who looked as though she could blow away in the wind came in leading a group of soldiers who were ashen; they were absolutely buggered. But they wouldn’t give up because she was in front of them. She was so exhausted she was almost whimpering, yet she was determined to get her group to the finish line.” Her tendons were so swollen, says Pugsley, she’d cut her boots with a bayonet to relieve the pressure.

Unable to be placed in a combat role after graduating, she was posted to a general transport platoon with the “roughest pack of bastards” where everyone thought she’d be eaten alive. Within the first couple of months, she’d sacked her sergeant, who bullied the men, and had the platoon eating out of her hand. “They realised anything they could do, she could do better.”

When it comes to strategy, leadership skills and mental strength, Pugsley has no doubt women can foot it in the military on equal terms with men. Often, they’re better at clearing out the “emotional clutter” when tough decisions need to be made, he says, and female soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq have performed well. But he believes women are at a biological disadvantage because they lack the physical endurance required for long stints “in a constant state of semi-exhaustion” on the frontline. Studies have also shown women are more likely to suffer from hip and leg fractures from carrying heavy loads.

If New Zealand was drawn into a large-scale conflict, the government would determine how to deploy its human resources, he says. “The question is whether sending women into combat is the best use of the skills they have. I’ve seen perhaps four women who’d make superb infantry officers – and a lot of others who would [if they had the right physical attributes]. But to get those four, we’d waste a hundred.

“Woman can be great fighter pilots. They could be excellent intelligence officers or drone operators, which in many ways I imagine is more demanding morally and long-term, in terms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We can send women to kill in many, many ways – providing we are then prepared as a country and as a society to meet the cost of us making that choice. It shouldn’t be done out of ignorance or a blind belief in equality, but because we recognise exactly what we’re doing. And we don’t. We don’t have a clue.”

He’s talking not just of the physical cost but also the long-lasting psychological damage – including  what’s been called moral injury. “Even if killing seems justified by the demands and duties of war, it sends our moral compasses spinning,” writes US war correspondent Kevin Sites.

In 2012, the number of suicides among US soldiers on active duty was higher than the number of combat deaths. Ninety per cent of the homeless in London are ex-military, says Pugsley, and the old rules of how prisoners should be treated have gone by the board. “If you’re captured today, male or female, you’ll be raped or sodomised. That’s part of the pre-deployment briefing – not to see it as sexual, but a control mechanism.

“Every person who goes to war is scarred, man or woman. There’s no difference. War destroys. Send someone to war and they have to live with the consequences.”

Colonel Karyn Thompson says the military reflects New Zealanders’ belief in a society where people are treated as equals. “Compared to what I call our sister nations, we’re way ahead.”

Colonel Karyn Thompson was 12 years old when she heard the military calling. The oldest of five children, she grew up on a farm in the Manawatu and was head prefect at Palmerston North Girls’ High.

Joining the army was her ticket to an outdoors lifestyle and the chance to “serve New Zealand in a leadership role”, she says. Her parents were less keen. “In their words, they wanted me to go to university and do something important with my life.”

Now one of the most senior women in the NZ Defence Force, Thompson has three qualifications, including a master’s degree – all paid for by the military – and has been deployed to the Sinai, East Timor (now Timor-Leste) and Bosnia. In November, she won the diversity category at the Women of Influence Awards, for breaking down barriers to women in the military, with initiatives to attract and retain female recruits and track them into senior ranks – a career path that was blocked when women were shut out of combat trades. “Nowadays any part of the battlefield can be classed as the frontline,” she says. “It’s not like [the trenches] in World War I and II. On any part, there’s risk.”

At 46 and a mother of three, she maintains the highest fitness grade in the military. And although women often struggle to make it through the demanding selection process, she makes it clear those standards won’t be lowered. She’s not a fan of quota systems, either.

“Aspirational targets are good, because that’s something to aim for,” she says. “With quotas, you’re after numbers, not necessarily the best person for the job. We can’t afford any backlash, so we wouldn’t put ourselves in a position where that might occur.”

Thompson says women’s strengths in collaboration and relationship-building help make soldiering more effective, especially in Muslim countries where all-male patrols can’t talk freely with the local women. Her husband is an army engineer and the family is about to move from Wellington to Waiouru, where Thompson has been appointed commander of army training and doctrine command.

Her dream job? “I’d love to be the Chief of Army one day.”

So, what of the male “killer instinct”? Surveys of infantrymen in World War II found only 15-20 per cent had fired their weapons in combat, even when ordered to do so, while one of our most decorated service-women, Nancy Wake, was a femme fatale who spied for the French resistance and made the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list – once killing an SS sentry with her bare hands.

Nicknamed the White Mouse because she was so elusive, Wake was described as a flower that bloomed in wartime. “She made the best of war,” says her biographer Peter FitzSimons, “and war made the best of her.”

Evolutionary psychologist Quentin Atkinson, an associate professor at Auckland University, believes it’s a spurious claim that women should be kept out of combat because they’re less likely than men to be temperamentally suited to war. “That logic gets you into all sorts of other trouble in terms of equality,” he says. “We all know men and women who are meek and mild, and men and women who are very aggressive and violent. Differences in the average are no reason to judge people on the group they happen to be a member of. The whole point of sex not mattering is that it’s an irrelevant variable.”

There’s a strong argument that with equal rights come equal responsibilities, says Atkinson, and stepping up to those responsibilities carries a lot of moral weight. Equality in the military has been a goal for many marginalised groups, from gays to black Americans to our own Maori Battalion (in World War II, Maori weren’t conscripted). It’s much harder to justify treating your fellow man – or woman – as a second-class citizen when they’re prepared to defend and die alongside you for their country.

Yet for others, there’s irony that becoming cannon fodder may be the price that has to be paid. “The feminists of the past did not want equal rights in a man’s world, they wanted a new world entirely,” Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes, in the Guardian. “On one level, yes, women on the frontline is a victory for equality.

“But those of us who still hope for peace and justice should not lose sight of that vision. The men who have long been sacrificed to further the aims of the powerful might just thank us too.”

A Nature to Nurture?
Some views on – and from – the “gentle” sex.

“Facing and killing a large and aggressive male enemy soldier – if necessary in hand-to-hand combat – requires a certain ferocity, aggression and killer instinct that is more characteristic of men than women. [It] is not a right nor an ‘opportunity’... It is a dreadful, gut-churning, traumatic and incredibly tough job that must be done to defend the country.”
Colonel Richard Kemp, who led British troops in Afghanistan, on women in combat roles.

“Women should, in general, nurture life, not take it. Irrational, I know, but there it is.”
Commentator Melanie McDonagh, writing in the Spectator.

“Feminism’s latest victory: the right to get your limbs blown off in war. Congratulations.”
US political correspondent Tucker Carlson tweets in 2013, after the Pentagon opens the frontline to women.   

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow women to serve in combat – they are delicate and they make the world beautiful. Combat, which is full of blood, should and must be a war of all men.”
Wang Xiao Pang, in a comment posted on the National Geographic News site.

“Would that be considered boobs on the ground?”
Fox News presenter Eric Bolling responds to a report on a female pilot from the United Arab Emirates who’d taken part in a bombing mission of Isis targets in Syria.

“Shock! Horror! UK’s first female warship commander accused of acting just like her male peers”
Headline on a news story in the Telegraph after a Royal Navy captain, Commander Sarah West, is removed from her ship amid claims of an affair with a male officer.      

“The women in east Kurdistan are being stoned, women are being killed, women are being hanged. And we are an armed force for these women.”
A female guerrilla from the PJAK (Party of Free Life for Kurdistan), in a video interview for a US news site.

“I’m not going to say I don’t love to punch people in the face. But that’s just part of the sport. It’s like a chess match, I know that I landed a good one.”
Combat fighter Holly Holm, after claiming the women’s bantamweight world title.

This was published in the January 2016 issue of North & South and has been updated.
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