Live From: The Sydney Writers Festival

Women belong on the front line. This war cry is growing louder among academics, feminists and female soldiers who are challenging the boys club mentality of the military.

With militaries around the world opening more positions to women, studies are beginning to interrogate the reasons for maintaining male-only combat units.

“Some of the reasons include that women will get their period, and every 28 days they’ll be in bed, or while they’re on a mission they might attract bears or sharks,” Dr. Megan Mackenzie said. The jam-packed Curiosity Stage at the Sydney Writers Festival filled with laughter in response to one of the less rigorous arguments uncovered in her research.

Dr. Mackenzie is a leading expert on gender security, and women in combat. She is Senior Lecturer of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and a former post-doctoral fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. Her book, Beyond The Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight was a Sydney Writers Festival 2016 bestseller, with only three copies left as she took to the stage to answer the question:

‘Do Women Belong On The Front Line?’

Dr. Mackenzie explained to the that many cis and transgendered women choose to join the military, and their reasons for doing so are as varied and valid as a man’s. “They should be allowed to work in an institution that respects them and provides them with an equal workspace,” she said.

Dr. Mackenzie defined the two most common arguments against allowing women in front line roles, the ‘Physical’ and the ‘Cohesion’ arguments. The former is the general position that men and women’s bodies are different. The latter pertains to how men and women work together, and the idea that front line units require a special kind of trust and loyalty that men are better able to attain.

Referring to her research, Dr. Mackenzie contended that neither argument was irrefutable. Rather, it is gender bias that shapes what we believe about women in combat. According to her book, not only can women meet the male physical standards, they also perform better in different areas. Women were also shown to fare well in complex decision-making, a trait arguably more useful in modern warfare than brute strength. She claimed there was little evidence showing that women negatively impacted on cohesion, or the unit’s ability to do its job.

The issue, Dr. Mackenzie believes, is the Band of Brothers Myth. The Myth is not that a group of male soldiers can develop a close bond, but that a nation’s security rests upon such exclusive masculine camaraderie. This enticing but destructive myth romanticizes war, and narrows it to encompass only honor, sacrifice and brotherhood. In reality, she argues, the Band of Brothers Myth is just a story through which we historicize war.

She hypothesises that higher numbers of women in all areas of the military would have a positive effect on the outcomes of peacekeeping operations. She asked the audience to question the myths we construct about war and gender, “We have to look at reality. There are no Band of Brothers movies actually happening in Afghanistan or Iraq. War is messy, costly, dirty… It’s not all men high-fiving each other.”

The battle to balance out the boys club might continue for as long as war exists. The nuclear option might be to demythologise war. As any soldier will tell you, war is far more complex and difficult than any Hollywood film.



Dr. Mackenzie was one of many forward-thinking women whose lecture focused on gender equality at last years Sydney Writers Festival. The 2017 SWF will again host many intelligent women discussing issues of feminism, gender equality and world issues, such as the Advice From Nasty Women panel featuring guest speakers Brit Bennett, Durga Chew-Bose, Viola Di Grado, Anita Heiss, Chris Kraus and Nadja Spiegelman, and hosted by Sophie Black. Join these nasty women at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday 27th May at 8pm. For tickets and more information check out the Sydney Writers Festival website.

Updated: Saturday 3rd June, 2017

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