Christian Potholm, Bowdoin’s DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government, has been teaching for more than four decades, but says he can’t remember a course in recent years that has stirred such excitement and energy, both among the students and himself.
“I feel recharged,” he says. “I wake up at five in the morning and I can’t wait to get in the class and start talking about something new. I find it very energizing to have a course that’s so well-received by the students and I, in turn, get excited by their excitement.”
The course – Daughters of Mars: Women Warriors – is a first-year seminar offered for the first time this fall. It’s a study of women at war through the ages, both as combatants or line fighters, says Potholm, and as military leaders.
In his many years of teaching and writing about warfare, Potholm says he’s “always been fascinated by the extent to which women warriors have always been left out of the traditional male military canon.”
And in the course of developing this seminar he says he made an interesting discovery: “that many of the feminist and gender literature which has developed also tends to leave out many of the women who fought in combat.”
A surprising fact perhaps, given for example that about 800,000 women fought for the Soviet Union in World War II, among them Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who with 309 kills to her name is regarded as the world’s deadliest female sniper. Indeed Potholm kicks off the course syllabus with a quote from Red Army general Vasily Chuikov, who after the siege of Stalingard stated categorically, “women soldiers proved themselves to be just as heroic in the days of fighting as the men.”
But Potholm’s course reaches a lot further back than World War II. Students learn for example about Zenobia, the third-century warrior queen who led a revolt against the Roman Empire; and Boudica, a leader of the ancient Britons who also rebelled against Rome.
“We also looked at some of the early Islamic women,” says Potholm.
“There was Umara, for example, who served as one of the prophet’s circle who fought with him, and he gave her credit. Whenever he was in battle and he would see her fighting on his right or on his left. And we see echoes of that today with the Peshmerga in Kurdistan and also the suicide bombers used by ISIS and Al Qaeda and others.”
The course ends by looking at the changing nature of the U.S. military, which in 2016 is due to open up all combat roles to women.
We are fortunate, says Potholm, to have two female Bowdoin graduates who have featured in the national debate over this issue.
One of them, Captain Katie Petronio of the U.S. Marine Corps, hit the headlines three years ago when, after frontline service in Afghanistan and Iraq, came to the conclusion that women are less capable physically of enduring sustained combat operations.
Another Bowdoin grad, Sage Sant’Angelo – also a Marine Corps officer – has argued, most notably in a Washington Post opinion piece last year, that women can achieve the same “combat fitness” levels as men.
Potholm says it’s exciting to have two Bowdoin women on opposite sides of this debate.
“And I think ultimately that’s the most important thing for people to understand: in a liberal arts education there isn’t one point of view. Here we have two strong-willed, powerful women who come down on different points of view who are not afraid to take criticism.”
He says we would love to get both of them back here on campus and conduct a debate. “I think Joshua Chamberlain would be very pleased to see them here.”
Potholm says he doesn’t think the former Bowdoin College president and hero of Gettysburg would have approved of women serving in combat, “but he would have enjoyed the debate.”