Summer honors students use history to navigate a current policy debate

Posted on July 28, 2016 by Joelle Ziemian

It may seem that the debate over the role of women in the military is a new issue, one that has made headlines and dinner-table conversations only within the past 10 to 20 years.

But two students in Sweet Briar’s 2016 Honors Summer Research Program — Daniela Ramirez, Class of 2018, and Jessie Schuster, a rising senior — found that the controversy is centuries old.

In 2015, the U.S. Defense Secretary said that the military will open all combat jobs — from the infantry to special operation forces — to women. In the beginning of 2016, branches of the military were required to submit plans to the Defense Department for the gender integration of combat units.

Eighty-five percent of men surveyed from the U.S. Special Operations Command opposed the order allowing women to join their specialties. “It’s a slap in the face telling us chicks can do our jobs,” one soldier wrote in an evaluation.

Daniela Ramirez was driven in her research by the question, “Why weren't these women like everybody else?” Daniela Ramirez was driven in her research by the question, “Why weren’t these women like everybody else?”

Over the course of their separate eight-week on-campus projects, Schuster and Ramirez discovered that “chicks” have done combat jobs for a very long time. Ramirez studied women military leaders in 12th- through 16th-century Japan and in early Renaissance Italy. Schuster explored the role of Russian women combatants during World War I.

Ramirez started her project with the assumption that military history too often leaves out the role of women on the battlefield.

“I came into this project wanting to prove that women have not always been in passive roles,” she says. “They are not just nurses. They have been foot soldiers, commanders.”

Ramirez says that in Japan, over the course of the five centuries she studied, girls started military training as young as age 3. Most often raised in military families, these girls prepared for their 16th birthday when they would take their place as leaders on the battlefield. Yet, even against that backdrop, there remained a glaring dichotomy.

“Japanese women lived in a world of dual images; the strong masculine leader and the virtuous woman,” Ramirez explains. “So these women had to break a lot of traditions. Education made that possible.”

Ramirez also examined the military role of women in Italy during the early Renaissance. She found that in this period, too, women combatants lived in two spheres. Women embodied Machiavellian traits in military leadership while excelling in the arts, such as music and portraiture. Indeed, Ramirez points out that the history of Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua, focuses on her work in the arts and collection of antiquities rather than her military prowess.

The goal of honors projects is to foster a rigorous interdisciplinary exploration of a specific topic. In achieving that goal, Ramirez became passionate about the women she studied.

“I want to meet them,” she says. “I want to ask how they managed to do these things when society told them to be something different.”

She plans to keep researching.

“I don’t feel I’ve done these women justice. I want to know them more. Each of them has something to teach us,” she says.

Schuster also wishes she could meet women from the topic she investigated — the role of female combatants in the Russian military during WWI.

“They didn’t run away; they had an overwhelming need to be at the front. It would be interesting to ask them about that.”

Unlike Ramirez’s historical Japanese and Italian subjects, who were wealthy and educated, the women Schuster encountered in her work were ordinary in every way — except on the battlefield. Russia’s provisional government called women to the front because of the high rate of desertion; with a country in crisis and a broken economy, entire units were simply walking away. Schuster says the thinking was that if women fought beside men, the man would remain at their positions. What happened instead was that men left and the women stayed. Already having taken over men’s jobs in factories and on farms, they picked up guns, too.

Ramirez references society’s unease with women in combat, saying, “There is this idea of the need to protect women. It has nothing to do with women’s abilities. It has everything to do with how we are perceived. We don’t realize the power we hold.”

Schuster believes that the women who rose to leadership ranks found meaning in battle. Thrust to the front from abusive marriages and hardscrabble lives, they knew how to survive emotionally and thrive in seemingly impossible circumstances. For the first time, many experienced success.

Both students say that, naturally, their summer research has informed their thinking on the issue of women in combat.

Jessie Schuster was in high school when she started thinking about the role of women in society. Jessie Schuster was in high school when she started thinking about the role of women in society.

In her final presentation, Schuster quoted a Russian woman: “Once at the front, I forgot whether I was a man or a woman. I was just a soldier.”

“Women still have to validate to society why they want to join up,” she says. “Why? It’s proven.”

In her final presentation, Jessie quoted a Russian woman: “Once at the front, I forgot whether I was a man or a woman. I was just a soldier.”

“We’ve been there in the past,” Ramirez adds, thinking out loud. “Especially for young girls, an important lesson is that, regardless of circumstances, you can do something exceptional.”

Doing something exceptional is at the root of Sweet Briar’s Honors Program. Allowing students to customize their primary source research to accommodate academic and career interests, the program leads to reflection and new ideas about the world.

Ramirez and Schuster will take those new ideas into the next chapter of their lives.

Ramirez, a history and international affairs double major from Montgomery County, Va., plans to work after graduation and then take the Foreign Service exam. She is interested in international diplomacy.

Schuster, from Camp Hill, Pa., is a history and music major. She is applying for funding to continue historical research. She eventually plans to apply to law school.