From Princesses to Generals: Leia and and the Evolution of Women at War

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BrooksLt. Col. Erica Iverson and Maj. ML Cavanaugh are US Army Strategists; this essay was adapted from a chapter in their forthcoming book, co-edited by Max BrooksStrategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict (Potomac Books, May 2018). 

Originally published by the Modern War Institute, this essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.

“She wasn’t looking for a knight, she was looking for a sword,” wrote the poet Atticus, who might have been thinking of Star Wars’ Leia Organa. Over the forty years of the Star Wars franchise, Leia went from princess to general at the same time American military women were looking to wield their own weapons.

It wasn’t easy, but both found their swords. And they’re not done fighting.

In 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, Leia slipped on-screen as the feisty damsel in distress. At the time, only five of the original ninety-three action figures represented a woman (all were Princess Leia). Female characters were virtually nonexistent, with only 6 percent of that script’s lines. Moreover, in the original trilogy’s total runtime of nearly 400 minutes, female characters other than Leia only spoke about one minute. In this blockbuster and beyond, it seemed like Princess Leia was the lone heroine that exposed global audiences to a female character who fights, shoots, kills, and looks good doing it.

Around the same time, women had just begun making strides for full inclusion in the ranks. In 1977, female Army recruits received letters describing their weapons training, telling them the “intent of the training is not to make a combat soldier out of you (women may not be assigned to combat or direct combat support operations) but to give you confidence.” Women Marines and sailors were similarly limited to non-combat roles, and female cadets had just entered the nation’s service academies in 1976. Those women who endured hazing until graduation in 1980 would be met that year with jokey stereotypes about military women in the movie Private Benjamin.

Fast forward to 2017…

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