Heinlein took a progressive step in his novel Starship Troopers. He gave women an equal role, as he saw it, in warfare, with women as the starship pilots and men as the troopers. Which was a bold portrayal at a time when women were present on the battlefield only as nurses.
Or maybe it wasn't, for according to Ty Franck, one half of the sci-fi writing duo James S.A. Corey, Heinlein was being sexist. His failure to portray women as combat soldiers, on the ground and at the sharp end, was tantamount to claiming that women can't do the job as well as men.
In the whole gender debate, there have been a few discussions about women in combat roles. One line of reasoning is that no job anywhere should be allowed to bar women. Period. The other is that upper body strength is no longer necessary in the modern age, for even child soldiers can handle automatic weapons, so there is nothing to prevent women from excelling as infantrypersons. After all, some already fly jets and helicopter gunships in combat, so what's the problem?
The problem is that strength is not the only issue in being a combat soldier, though even on today's technologically advanced battlefield, strength plays a bigger part than most people realise. What an infantryman really needs is aggression. Physical aggression.
Infantrymen must want to fight, and that includes the kind of brawling that frequently takes place in pubs and bars near army bases on a Saturday night. Just ask any military policeman.
So for women to be in the infantry in equal numbers, as Mr Franck sees it, they too must look forward to a punch up.
Yet feminists frequently decry the kind of aggression exhibited by men. The aggression of men is the focus of many campaigns, including one fronted by Hilary Clinton, to 'end violence against women'.
Not violence against anybody. Just women.
Even the UN has gotten in on the act, with Afghanistan topping their poll of places that are dangerous to women. Not dangerous to the men who are shot, skinned alive by rival tribesmen and tortured. Not dangerous to the young boys who are routinely raped by warlords and the Afghan police.
No. Just women.
The equality campaigns of the 50's and 60's were about freeing women from social constraints, so that they could go out into the world and do whatever men did, enjoying the freedoms and wealth-rewards that men received. Women were encouraged to be bold, brash and assertive. Under the circumstances, it was probably natural to assume that women would branch out into every aspect of life, including the military. For if the only thing holding women back was a conservative and patriarchal society, then the removal of those barriers would be like opening the gates of the prison. Women would come flooding out, leaving their aprons and wooden spoons behind.
And at first glance, that is what they appear to have done. It's a bit of an illusion, though, as the jobs that women have flooded into have been administrative and service industry jobs that are safe and clean. Jobs that involve being outdoors in all weathers, that involve taking risks, or are dirty and uncomfortable, haven't attracted women at all. Those are still left to men. So the idea that women will one day fight in equal numbers on the frontline does take a stretch of the imagination. Far from embracing discomfort and challenge, feminism today demands that men protect women from such things and desist from anything that appears to take advantage of women's vulnerabilities. Because women, it seems, are too weak to defend themselves. They don't put it like that of course, but that's the implication of what feminists in the popular and mainstream media are saying.
Take the recent twitter scandals for instance. This was where high profile women kicked up a fuss because of sexist abuse they received, 'just because they were women'. One woman who campaigned for a female historical character to appear on a banknote even managed to get the police to track down her sexist abusers, one of whom turned out to be a woman. But the idea that male misogynists were being unfair to women with their sexist bullying has become something of a meme, with women involved in a recent twitter argument over some subject in science fiction, for instance, complaining about the awful bullying and the sexist spite they had to endure - just because they were women.
Physically assaulting a weaker woman may involve an imbalance of power, but sending messages on twitter does not require upper body strength, physical aggression or the patriarchal patronage of an institution. Considering that women's greater communications skills have been lauded for some time now, one would think that they would be able to hold their own in a twitter argument without bursting into tears or demanding new laws to protect them. But no, it appears that women are victims in the virtual world too. Are these the future recruits who will go toe to toe with an enemy on the battlefield? We can only hope that the enemy don't get hold of their twitter accounts, as the resulting breakdown in the ranks could be eye watering.
Not all women are bothered by such things of course. Many of the victims in these scandals have tended to be upper middle class women, nurtured from the cradle by wealth, privilege, nannies and campus grievance committees. Such women were never going to sign up as lowly infantrypersons anyway, which is why they spend more time campaigning to get into executive posts than into trenches. But working class women, while being a lot more robust when it comes to replying to insults, online or off it, remain choosy about which occupation they venture into. They prefer childcare, hair and beauty or restaurant serving to bricklaying or road sweeping. If you're looking for women to fight and die in the squalor of battlefields all over the world, then it's these girls from the trailer parks and housing projects who will be recruited alongside their equally poorly-educated male peers to fix a bayonet to their rifle and assault their way out of an ambush (and yes, that kind of thing still does happen, even today). Decades of social engineering and gender education haven't changed much and, left to their own devices, men and women will still make different choices.
There are, and always have been, adventurous, physically robust women who can take their knocks and still go looking for more. But the truth of the matter is that such women are rare, which is why they make such great characters in stories. Such women who do get to serve on frontlines either learn to love the rough banter and culture of men, or end up leading a lonely existence because their sisters can't be persuaded to join them. No amount of legislation or affirmative action programs will change that, as evidenced when Norway decided to bring in conscription on an equal basis for men and women and received complaints from women's groups. Even though Norway isn't likely to get involved in many wars (if any), most women still don't want to do it.
Fiction is all about fantasy, of course. Do you want to take on a whole squad of Nazis or commies single-handed, with a gun that never runs out of ammo? Then a fiction writer will provide. Would you like to fly through the air in a cape and underpants? Have big breasts and a slim physique but still pack the punch of a heavyweight? Find the sensitive hunk of your dreams and live happy ever after? Have male and female space marines in equal numbers on a dropship, prior to a planetary assault? Then come to the world of fiction where, for just a few dollars, we will indulge, amaze and leave you feeling good about yourself and the world.
Just don't do what Ty Franck did and mistake it for reality, either now or in some surmised future. People read fiction to get away from reality, and while it may sometimes provoke some into asking questions of the world about them, it rarely provides correct answers.
That's what makes fiction so appealing. The incorrect answers are easier to bear.
Sherlock's Veiled Victorianism
What Women Want
What Women Want Too