by Meredith Dault
Sept. 25, 2011
“Playing Soldier?: Combining Theatre and Theory to Explore the Experiences of Women in the Military.”
When Ciara Murphy set out to write a play about women in the military as part of her graduate work, she wasn’t doing it theoretically. Murphy, who recently completed her Master’s degree in Cultural Studies, joined the reserves in 2002 while she was still in high school. She was living in Victoria, teaching naval communications, when she made the decision to come to Queen’s.
“I had always planned to go to graduate school,” she recalls with a laugh, “I was waiting for the right project to appear to me, but then nothing did, so I just decided to apply and see what happened.” Also accepted at the University of Toronto, Murphy chose instead to become part of the first cohort of the new program in Cultural Studies at Queen’s. “I decided to come because of the project option,” she says, referencing the department’s mandate to let students complete their degree by non-traditional means.
For Murphy, 27, who has an undergraduate degree in both Theatre & Film, and English from McMaster University, it was a chance to explore and integrate her varied experiences and interests. She was inspired by a military conference she had attended in Halifax that was built around looking at women’s experiences in the Canadian Navy on the centennial of its formation. “The Navy was formed in 1910, but women were only allowed to enroll in the combat trades in 1989” she explains, “before that, they were relegated to ‘feminine’ roles like nurses or clerks.” Murphy says that women can now join as naval communicators and infantrymen, among other roles.
She says what she found most inspiring was being in a room with a group of women who were trailblazers. “The first female Commander of a major Canadian warship, and the first female Coxswain of a warship were there,” she explains, “and what really struck me was how recent it all was. It was in my lifetime!”
Working with Julie Salverson, a professor in the Drama Department, Murphy began researching women’s experiences in the military. “Women have been put into this previously established structure and mostly just expected to adapt to it,” she says. “And progress has definitely been made, but I think looking at the experiences of women can point out some of the areas (within the military) where we can still make improvements and changes. That’s what led me to this project.”
Though her original intention was to conduct interviews with women, she wasn’t able to secure permission from the military ethics review board in time. Instead, she turned to existing literature, a blog written by an American woman in the army, and the information she’d gleaned at the conference to find her material. “I went through it all expecting to find that things had really changed, but what I found was that my own experiences were pretty similar to what they were all describing.”
The resulting play, “Not Quite Soldiers”, incorporates different aspects of each narrative, creating a multidimensional picture of what life in the military is like for women. In the end, Murphy wove her script into a theoretical paper called “Playing Soldier?: Combining Theatre and Theory to Explore the Experiences of Women in the Military.” After her successful defense, Murphy became the first graduate from the Cultural Studies program.
While Murphy, who hopes to proceed to work in theatre or television, isn’t sure whether she will ever see her play produced, she is certain it is a research area that needs to be looked at in more detail. “I think Canada is very special because we are one among very few countries that let women into combat roles,” she says. “Britain doesn’t do it, the United States doesn’t do it,” though pointing out that it is currently an issue of contention in the U.S. “The things people say are insane,” she laughs. “One guy in the U.S. said that if you let women into combat roles, the smell of their menstruation would give their position away to the enemy. If the enemy is close enough to smell that, your position is already gone!”
While she has been with the military for almost ten years, Murphy says it is still a fascinating topic for her. “There are still barriers to gender integration in the military,” she admits, “and as a student in the humanities, I do have some concerns about militaries in general, but I also know that militaries aren’t going anywhere.” That’s when she smiles, and shrugs, her degree completed and a world of possibility opening before her. “You aren’t going to be able to make positive changes from outside of it.”