Women and the Identity of a Soldier

Posted by Elana Goldbaum on March 14, 2013

Identity is a key concept in a Facing History classroom and I believe one of the most exciting to discuss because it encourages students to think of their own identity, which can be very complicated: the way society perceives a person versus how they see themselves. This is a versatile concept that can be connected to any moment, and current events such as the recent change concerning women in the armed forces, are a perfect way to do that.

When we think of war and combat, society sees a man's world. Images of George Washington crossing the Delaware, leading his men or perhaps General Eisenhower and the soldiers of D-Day usually come to mind. Historically, women have been in the background of war as nurses or on the home front supporting from a far and when, on occasion, a women is featured in battle, it is considered an act of divine intervention as in Joan of Arc.

Adam Zyglis,
Courtesy Denver Post

A lot has changed since the Lady of Orleans or even the days of Florence Nightingale and Rosie the Riveter. Recently, the United States Pentagon announced that it will lift the ban on women serving in combat. If you're anything like me, you brought this up in class all excited and it fell flat - my 10th grade students are more concerned with the upcoming formal dance at school than about shifting gender roles in the military. How do we get our students to understand that women have a complicated and multifaceted identity? How can we encourage our students to predict the social changes in the wake a new military policy and furthermore, how that will change the identity of women in our culture? I wanted to address this issue in my own class and here's what I did.

First, we discussed, "What are gender roles? Where do get the idea of what makes a woman or a man?"

Then I asked, "What is the role of women and men in war and how do you know?"

After that, I played this NPR story about women serving in combat and afterwards, divided students into groups of three or four where they had to come up with their own discussion questions. In order to scaffold this process, students were give question starters such as

  • "How could _______ be a problem?"
  • "What is the difference between _____ and _____?"
  • "What does it mean when they say_____?"

These help students construct thoughts in an academic manner and help with the flow of discussion. I also encouraged them to relate to history themes - we use the acronym PERSIA for political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and artistic themes. With the radio story and small groups, this took about 20 minutes. We got back into our big discussion circle and posed the questions students came up with such as,

  • How will women serving on the front lines affect our society?
  • Do you think this will change the way women grow up? How?
  • What effect will this change have in the military?

Discussion was amazing! There was debate about sexuality and leadership as well as some questions about how video games will be different in the future. I ended with the question, "How will the identity of women be challenged or change?" and as we talked about their mothers and future children growing up with different ideas, the bell rang and there was a collective, "Noooooo" around the room as they had so much more to say.

I would highly recommend working this topic into class, not only is it extremely important for history, but our students are, despite teenage appearances, very eager to discuss it.


To introduce your students to a few women who have made amazing contributions to our world, click here.

Topics: Critical Thinking, In the news, A View from the Classroom

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