The exclusion of women from combat has revolved around several key assumptions.
First, society argued that women were physically weaker than men. They were said, for example, to lack the upper body strength so important to enable one to haul ropes, wield a sword, shoulder a musket, or load a shell for a sustained period in combat.
To this has been added the psychological argument that women are different from men. They are said to possess characteristics of caring and nurturing, and to be less aggressive than men.
'It is thought that media coverage will focus on female casualties ...'
Armchair generals have also argued that women lack one of the unique qualities of young men in uniform, prized by the armies of all nations - their willingness to take risks, to kill and, in extremis, to sacrifice themselves. Another view, still prevalent, is that the killing or wounding of women is somehow worse than the concept of male battle casualties. It is thought that media coverage will focus on female casualties (the ‘body-bag’ factor) to the discomfort of politicians, who will therefore be wary of sending women in to combat.
Some armies (the Israeli Defense Force for example) also exclude women from front-line service for fear that their male colleagues will accord them special protection or attention on the battlefield, thus undermining combat efficiency.
Before the 20th century, such debate tended to push women who wanted to be part of the armed forces either to conceal their gender, or to gravitate towards the caring roles of nurse or camp follower.
The two world wars, however, proved that, given the chance, the physical and mental fighting qualities needed in the services could be developed equally well, through training, in women as in men.
The use of women in combat by the Red Army, and the 418 female agents trained by Britain's Special Operations Executive to work for European resistance networks (of whom 119 died and three were awarded the George Cross, two posthumously), are two examples of how women have served successfully in offensive land operations.
In the air, the fact that between 1942 and 1945, 12 per cent of the Red Air Force’s fighter pilots, including several aces, were women, speaks for itself.