Last month Neill Mitchell outlined his attitude to women in combat in an article for the Herald Sun ("Give the lady a gun" 9/4/03). It's worth quoting the concluding passages in full:
The reality now is that if a woman is suited to combat, she can go into combat. Technology has created many new ways of fighting and killing and many have nothing to do with brute strength.
The price of this equality may well be horrible but there is no logical reason to protect a woman from that.
Indeed used properly, many in the military believe she may be a better, more effective human weapon.
We cannot overcome generations of conditioning overnight and some men will continue to be protective towards women.
The attitude expressed here shows that Neill Mitchell is right wing in the sense of being a right liberal, rather than a conservative.
Liberals want us to be self-defining individuals. They don't like the idea that being born male or female imposes certain obligations or ideals of behaviour.
This is why Mitchell dismisses the idea of male protectiveness toward women as negative social conditioning. Note too how important liberal first principles are to Mitchell: he is willing to follow them through even though "the price of this equality may well be horrible." (This theme is also covered in my earlier article "Liberalism as a secular religion".)
It's interesting to compare Mitchell's views with that of Christine Odone, a woman writing in the generally left-wing British newspaper The Guardian.
In her article, titled "I won't die for equality" (9/2/2003), she explains that she's not exactly "gasping for the chance to be blasted to smithereens by a cluster bomb" and that only "rabid equalisers" want to deliver women into military combat.
So does this make the left-wing Christine Odine more of a conservative than the right-wing Neill Mitchell? Not really. Christine Odine is applying what is sometimes called an unprincipled exception. This means that she approves of the underlying liberal principle, but finds it hard to live with some of its consequences. So she makes a particular exception, by claiming that things are being taken "too far".
This is why she generally praises the fact of women entering traditionally male fields as "progress" but notes that "To some of us [women], being made target practice for the Republican Guard is hardly the kind of equal opportunity we've been looking for" and that "a woman does not need to be in the firing line to feel as good as a man. That is an equality too far."
The problem for Christine Odine is that there will always be those, like Neill Mitchell, who seek to apply liberal first principles to their logical full extent. So, unless we challenge the first principles, it is likely that women will be increasingly drawn into combat roles and perhaps one day will even be conscripted in time of war.
What we need to do is to discard the liberal idea that we are self-defining individuals subject only to our own will and reason. Doing so would allow us to accept in a positive way that there are naturally occurring differences between men and women. Equality would no longer mean trying to transgress the idea of sex roles, it would mean attempting to fulfil our higher nature as men and women.
Were women really born to kill on the battlefield? Is this really part of a higher feminine virtue? The answer to this doesn't depend on modern technology or even on the capabilities of individual women. The answer is a timeless no.
(First published at Conservative Central 07/06/2003)