Tanks and gender. Gender and tanks. What on earth is the link between the two? Well let’s take a little trip down memory lane, shall we?
It was during World War I that tanks were first introduced into combat by the British army. The revolutionary British Mark 1 Tank was the first of its kind, the first of a series of developments that would change the face of warfare forever, and that, surprisingly, was gendered. You see, in an interesting anthropomorphising manner, the British army ascribed genders to their tanks depending on their characteristics, which meant that they had a ‘male’ tank and a ‘female’ tank. Little bit strange right?
The male ones had two 6-pounder guns, one in each sponson on either side of the hull. Whilst these guns were fairly accurate and useful, they were also very heavy and cumbersome to operate, which meant that the tanks might not be able to defend themselves against infantry attacks. And what was the solution? Arming half of the other tanks solely with easy to operate machine guns, also known as female tanks. The two types of vehicles would work in pairs, with the male tanks supposed to be the destructor ones and the female tanks the protecting ones equipped to execute targeted attacks. Although one could assume that the ‘protector’ tank would be the male one, the male tank was the one with the more phallic-shaped large gun designed to penetrate enemies’ lines. In 1918, however, it was decided that tanks should be hermaphrodite, having both heavy and light armament, thus putting behind the differentiation between male and female.
Now let’s fast forward to the present day. Yes, tanks are still considered hermaphrodite. Yet, in certain armies, women have been prevented from driving and operating such heavily armoured vehicles because of what some might call essentialist double standards. In 2015, for instance, the Israel Defence Forces decided that women soldiers cannot operate tanks because of their supposed physical and physiological limitations. Of course, there are some physical obstacles but women tank soldiers would tell you that these are not insurmountable and that their ability should be assessed based on their competencies and not gendered expectations of strength. Thankfully, this has changed with four women becoming the first women tank commanders of the Israeli army in 2018. Women are now able to drive and operate tanks, thus showing that they can handle them just like any other trained soldier.
Going even further, after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent abandonment of many tanks by Russian forces in the countryside, videos have started to appear on social media, made by men and women influencers, teaching you how to run these armoured vehicles. Here, we see the traditional divide between soldier/civilian and man/woman blur. The critical nature of the conflict creates a situation in which military material and participation in armed conflict is ‘democratised.’
In this way, although tanks are now hermaphrodite, analysing their functioning, operation, and utilisation through feminist goggles still remains more than actual.