By Kai Karmanheimo

The Federation military institution, as depicted in the aired canon of Blake's 7, gives a somewhat ambiguous idea about women's role in it. Certainly there are women in the military, in fact one of them has risen to the top of Space Command's power structure. On the other hand, they seem to be a very small minority: perhaps as few as four military women appear during the course of the whole series, all of them being or having been officers. Women seem to be completely absent from the ranks of non-commissioned officers and troopers, the only exception being the mutoids who seem to be almost exclusively female. This does not seem like a perfectly integrated army, but you obviously cannot say that the military discriminates against women. Or can you? What follows is my brief look at what women's role(s) in the Federation military could be like, based on the scarce canonical evidence available, a few real world models, and a wealth of wild, totally unsubstantiated speculations.

The Federation has often been compared to the 20th Century fascist dictatorships and there is an undeniable family resemblance. However, those dictatorships emphasised traditional gender roles and strict division of the tasks and duties of men and women in society, mostly based on essentialist and highly stereotypical notions of both sexes (i.e. men are naturally aggressive, dominating and better suited for active and technical tasks, women naturally submissive, nurturing and best suited to remain and work within the domestic sphere). With women in the military, the Federation obviously does not have a similar attitude, at least not openly, but then I see the Federation as a system which strives to maintain an illusion of equality and openness, while underneath it in fact employs strict, oppressive tactics to suppress any dissent (closer to the Soviet Union than Nazi Germany, then). Nothing would be quite as it seems on the first glance.

In some contemporary nation states women are legally allowed, or in a few cases required, to serve in the military but are at the same time barred from participating in actual combat. If we apply this to the Federation, it would mean that women in the Fleet could serve onboard transports, cargo shuttles, hospital ships and whatever other support or underway replenishment ships there are, but not on hunter-killers or big cruisers which are allocated primarily for combat and power projection. In the same way, women would be welcomed in the more "supportive", non-combat branches of the military, such as intelligence, political, legal, training, communications and research, but excluded from front-line troops used to colonise, pacify and garrison the Outer Planets. Three of the four non-mutoid military women in the series would fit these categories: Kasabi was a political officer, Thania a legal councillor, and Arlen most likely a field agent for the intelligence, where a bit of fighting can be overlooked, if it becomes necessary (Arlen's quip about not looking like she was with the Federation could well be taken to mean that it is common knowledge that the Federation doesn't use women as operatives on planets like this). As majority of Federation troops we see in the series are in fact just these front-line troops posted on high-risk planets (such as Albian), guarding high-value installations, or involved in the armed conquest of non-Federation worlds, the absence of women among them would be perfectly logical. There could still be women of all ranks stationed on low-threat planets, running the logistical operations required to keep those faraway garrisons going, or held in reserve for the day when those hairy alien hordes come sweeping in to decimate Earth. Mind you, just because you are a designated non-combatant, it doesn't mean you can't get drawn into fighting, especially with the likes of Blake waging a non-conventional, hit-and-run war against targets deep within the Federation territory.

Closing certain parts of the military from women also has an adverse effect on women's career development in the service. With frequent campaigns to conquer or suppress planets, there are a lot of opportunities for men, but not for women, to obtain actual combat experience, which would quite certainly be seen as a merit beneficial, perhaps even vital, to career development (more than likely in fact, with the Federation having been on the road of conquest and expansion for the last two hundred years; military virtues, such as "order" and "unity" play a notable part in its rhetoric, and its culture would certainly emphasise military proficiency). Similarly, the command of a front-line combat ship on campaigns of strategic value would be far more visible and prestigious than the command of an anonymous cargo ship routinely hauling supplies from one planet to another, even if the latter plays a far greater part in keeping the Federation's organisation together on a day-to-day basis. Hence it would be far harder for women than for men to climb up the military's hierarchical ladder and there would be fewer of them among the top officers. In most cases they would be reduced to a subordinate position, doing the unglamorous, everyday work needed to sustain the organisation, so that men could use it as a platform from which to collect the glory (as much as the word applies to the conquest and enslaving of peoples). Nothing new or emancipatory about that.

Federation's hierarchical structure may also be a factor here. We know that at least on Earth the population is divided into grades, and the whole Federation seems very Terracentric (Le Grande: "He who leads must be from Earth"), so your prospects may greatly depend on which grade you are and which part of the Federation you come from. Women of the lower grades, deprived of education and opportunities, would be more prone to be confined to the traditional role of mother, which from the military's point of view means bearing and raising strong sons to step into its ranks, serving and perpetuating the system by providing it with new heroes whose glorious exploits are reward enough for their mothers (this is one form the myth of "selfless devotion to the Federation" Servalan mentions can take; on sparsely populated planets it might become a very ugly prospect indeed). The privileged upper grade women would likely have far more freedom and choice about their lives, and would also be valuable to the elitist military, which seeks to appropriate the best talent around, while making sure that the inferior material never rises above cannon fodder status where it could upset the military tradition and disrupt the military's smooth functionality. This would mean fewer women than men in the military because the military would be an option only to a small percentage of women, and those that did get in might well have to meet higher standards than men (being, to the conservative military mind, one of those potentially disruptive elements).

So what is Space Command's attitude towards the women in its ranks? We really only have Servalan as the yardstick in this issue, but judging by her, you could say that women's position within the military is not a hot issue, one way or the other. They are there, evidently happy about it, and no one sees anything aberrant about this. The only ones to really to suggest otherwise are Jarvik and Grose, but there is no indication that their attitudes reflect the popular opinion among servicemen.

On the other hand, just because gender issues are not openly raised, it does not automatically mean that there are none. Considering Servalan's initial reaction to Jarvik's behaviour, it seems unlikely she would tolerate open sexism around her. After all, allowing it to go on would undermine her authority, and I think there is clear evidence that people seeking to undermine Servalan's authority tend to experience severe stalls in both career development and life expectancy departments. However, I doubt if she would bother to extend this protection to other women in the organisation. Again, we do not know whether things are as easy for women lower in the military hierarchy based merely on Servalan, who by being the head of Space Command does not represent its everywoman (the ivory tower is usually an unsuitable vantage point for making accurate observations about life in the gutter). While I could imagine Space Command imposing political correctness on its personnel (which would explain why everybody's use of language is so !#*!ing polite) as it already restricts their behaviour in so many other ways, removing the surface structure does not automatically eradicate the base ideas and attitudes. Sexist remarks can be euphemised, cliques and segregation can be maintained covertly, certain practices can be overlooked with the silent consent of "old boys networks" etc. Hence the existence of an underlying chauvinist culture within Space Command cannot be overruled, if not confirmed either.

If the Federation is actually reluctant about having women in its military, then why even do it in the first place? Because there are benefits. For one thing, a sizable increase in its workforce. With every expansion of its empire, with every new planet annexed, there is more area to manage and more troops needed to maintain order or deter against the rise of unrest. Recruiting women to handle supportive, non-combat tasks frees up men to be used in the colonial troops. In fact, the Federation may actually be forced to do this, if there is simply not enough young men to go around. This is how women's role has grown in many real armies over the last century: a growing need for personnel coincides with diminishing birthrates and willingness by the primary recruit group, young males, to volunteer for service. Unless Space Command goes for an all-out conscription programme requiring every male to spend a certain time in the military at some point of their lives, and hence imposes a heavier drain on the civil sector workforce (which the Civil Administration, already unhappy about the military's growing influence, might not approve of), while quite probably also lowering their standards (and thus facing the prospect of having too many troopers of the Restal variety in their ranks), it will need women in their ranks, either as volunteers or conscripts.

The other way the Federation will benefit from military women is through propaganda value. In many cases, women's presence in the military is more symbolic than functional in equal terms with men. A woman soldier is more likely to appear in a picture than on a battlefield. Images of military women pop up in the media all the time when there is a conflict brewing or a show of military strength is needed: women armed to the teeth, marching proudly in uniforms and declaring their willingness to defend [enter the name of beloved country here] against the [enter adjective here] forces of [enter the name of the enemy here]. In fact, the majority of them do no more than this, even in war time. They are still barred from actual fighting, but this false image given to public serves to useful purposes. First, it creates an idea of the whole nation pulling together and participating equally in the military effort (that "complete unity" that Servalan calls for in "Star One"). Second, in a culture promoting traditionally masculine qualities, it appeals to young males, who are the military's primary interest, with its implied message: "If even women are going to battle, then what are YOU standing around there like some unpatriotic, gutless, sexually-degenerate wimp!? Join up and be a MAN!" I could well imagine similar images being used in Federation recruitment ads, and that they would find a fertile ground in the likes of Jarvik.

All in all, by having women in the military essentially as non-combatants the Federation could benefit from the valuable work they do, further draw the population behind the essentially military goals through the militarisation of women, and strengthen its veneer of equality and unity by appearing to provide both sexes with equal opportunities. At the same time it would keep its militarised women in a mainly subordinate position where they would not threaten the established power of the small military elite or the order that perpetuates it. A pretty neat trick, when you think about it.

I do realise that there are several contradicting factors to the model I have presented here. I am going to take up three of them. First of all there is Servalan, who does not fit comfortably in with any of these theories. Her position is not symbolic, but one of real power and influence. Since there is no mention of her predecessors, we don't know whether she was the first woman to become the Supreme Commander or whether there has already been thirteen to dozen of them. However, we do know that her nomination was political: the President "picked" Servalan, which suggests more active involvement than just rubber-stamping Space Command's choice, and the decision was supported by Joban and other councillors. Though Kasabi's assessment of her as a cadet was most unfavourable, Servalan's ruthlessness and manipulative skills cannot be denied; add political connections and there is no reason why she could not make it to the top without ever leading troops into battle, even if she would have to work considerably harder and more ruthlessly to get there.

The way I see it, Servalan could well have beaten her opposition in the final race for the Supreme Commander's chair by appearing to be harmless enough for both the civilians and the military. The politicians would consider her as their "man inside", because she would be particularly indebted to them for getting there in the first place, reliant on them for staying there (note Joban's hints about what would happen if he withdrew his support), and hence least likely to threaten their position by expanding Space Command's influence (how wrong can you be...). She would be acceptable (rather than desirable) to the military as a validation of the fairness and equality of their system, that a woman *can* make it to the top if she just plays the game without making noise about the rules being biased. Servalan is not going to rock Space Command's boat, because she has accepted their ways and methods, she is "one of the lads". Considering her shrewdness, I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of image trick was exactly what she used to gain power. Nor would I be surprised if those assassination attempts she refers to in "Project Avalon" were organised by either or both of the parties involved once they saw how different her real agenda was. In any case, I don't see Servalan as the proof that Space Command is in anyway an equal opportunity employer (unless their personnel policy is something like, "We don't want men, we don't want women, we just want complete bastards").

Another exception are the mutoids, Federation's special feature that does not have a counterpart in contemporary armies. They certainly take active part in fighting. It seems clear, though, that they are considered more like machines than people (Travis at least seems to feel this is the case). Certainly, a mutoid stripped of memory, name and all other ingredients of personality, existing only to serve and to obey without questioning, is hardly the epitome of a healthy, well-rounded individual. If one accepts this, it becomes possible to bypass the suggested rule against allowing women to participate in combat: the body, whether it is man's or woman's, becomes mere raw material for the cybernetic weapon. I do not know whether this material was obtained with or without the consent of the person involved, but you could speculate that people would volunteer themselves for conversion as an alternative to execution for a crime, to have their families receive financial compensation, to survive an otherwise terminal disease or lethal injury, and sometimes maybe even for ideological reasons ("Join up and be a DUMMY!"). Many mutoids might be rock bottom-grade women who chose conversion as an only option out of a dead-end existence (from a baby-making machine to a killing machine, what a great improvement) and perhaps got a few extra credits for their family to help them survive (selfless dedication, it will make for a great piece of propaganda). In either case, it seems that a woman wanting to be a front-line soldier in the Federation would really have to move from subjectivity, however restricted, to being an object without a will of her own, literally a thing. However, there was at least on male mutoid as well, so it is not simply women who are reduced to automatons, just that they probably have fewer alternatives to becoming one. In a way, I think the mutoid comes close to being the epitome of what not only Space Command but the military in general look for in a soldier: efficient, unquestioningly obedient, disciplined, its performance unaffected by any emotional response to the destructive actions it is told to perform. An army of automatons liberated from individuality, doubt and any adherence to sexual roles or identity would be one that you could call perfectly integrated and equal.

The final point I want to take up concerns just this kind of uniformity or more accurately, uniforms. The whole point of uniforms is that they make people appear the same, and the baggy, austere overalls and bowl-like helmets worn by Federation troopers, while not really great achievements even by the jackbooted standards of fascist fashion, do successfully eliminate most of their wearers' individualising features. Your rank-and-file trooper is almost always faceless, voiceless, anonymous *and* sexless. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that they are all in fact men, because when ever we get a look under the faceplate, it is a man, and of course tradition and cultural conditioning probably still suggest that soldier's gender default setting is male (not to mention knowing that practically all of the extras playing the troopers were men), but this is no way a given fact. It is entirely possible that some of those disposable dregs shooting civilians and getting shot, throttled and generally blown to any Federation-approved equivalent of hell by Our Beloved Terrorist Scum are not someone's sons but someone's daughters. So despite the arguments I have made earlier about women being barred from fighting, I admit that fighting could be exactly what they are doing nearly as much as men do. Nothing is necessarily quite as it seems to be here either.

Ultimately, there is very little information to confirm either of these views. I will conclude with the only point I am quite sure of: whether they are there more as a subaltern work force, mindless robots or fully functional human fighters, women are part of the Federation military system, and frankly, this is not something that they should be proud of, any more than their male colleagues should be proud of their own participation to this "thin, black line".

Back up to Essay index

Back up to Blakes 7

Last changed on 03rd of February 2001