Women in the military

From New World Encyclopedia
Medieval depiction of Joan of Arc.

The history of women in the military extends over 4000 years into the past, throughout a vast number of cultures and nations. Women have played many roles in the military, from ancient warrior women, to the women currently serving in conflicts like the Iraq War. Despite various roles in the armies of past societies, the role of women in the military, particularly in combat, is controversial and it is only recently that women have begun to be given a more prominent role in contemporary armed forces. Many countries have historically portrayed the woman as a nurturer and symbol of the home in need of protection from the outside world. It is from this standpoint that the role of woman as soldier and national protector is debated. As increasing numbers of countries begin to expand the role of women in their militaries, the debate continues.

Yet as a matter of record, women have played a significant role in military history through their numerous battlefield contributions. Images of women soldiers are now commonplace in popular culture. The sex discrimination that has occurred in the past on the basis of female inferiority has proven itself null in the actions of notable women who has taken their part to serve with honor during the many world conflicts that have erupted throughout the course of human history. Natural justice demanded that women have the right to bear arms alongside men, as they entered other previously closed professions. However, as humanity completes what some regard as a maturation process, renounces war and violence as childish and embraces non-violent means to resolve difference and disputes, it will one day be no longer necessary for men or women to become professional military personnel.

Contemporary debate

The role of women in combat has become a particularly contentious issue in contemporary militaries throughout the world. With the current exclusion of women from many combat roles seen by some as a form of sexual discrimination, an ongoing debate continues to rage. Many on each side of the issue cite the alleged physical and mental differences of the two sexes, the effect of the presence of the opposite sex on the battlefield, and the traditional view of males as soldiers as arguments both for and against women being employed as soldiers under combat situations. The idea of having women in combat has been thrown around by several civilizations since early civilization. Some societies have chosen to not allow women to fight for their countries, while others have used women to fight in their wars as frequently as men, such as 800,000 women who served in the Soviet military during World War II, of which many saw front line action Women have been serving in the military in numerous support roles in several countries for many years. In modern wars, however, there may be no front line, and women, in such roles as military police providing convoy escort, or staffing checkpoints, have gotten into firefights as part of a mixed unit, Raven 42.[1] SGT Leigh Ann Hester, among other decorated soldiers in the Raven 42 unit, received the Silver Star, the third highest US combat decoration. While nurses under fire had received this award previously, Hester was the first woman to receive it for direct participation in combat.

Although women are recruited to serve in the military in most countries, only a few countries permit women to fill active combat roles. Countries that allow this include Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Other nations allow female soldiers to serve in certain Combat Arms positions, such as Israel and the United Kingdom, which allow women to serve in Artillery roles, while still excluding them from units with a dedicated Infantry role. The United States allows women in most combat flying positions.

Several points of argument have been put forward by those in favor of women serving in combat conditions as well as those against the idea. Many of these arguments are focused on the physical differences between men and women, but also on differing mentalities, and the effects upon one sex by the presence of the other on the battlefield. Since very few countries employ a fully integrated military, there are few references able to prove or disprove the arguments below.

Physical concerns

One of the most obvious concerns regarding women in combat situations is the fact that, on average, female soldiers do not possess as much physical strength as their male counterparts and this may put them at a disadvantage when fighting males.[2] The female skeletal system is also less dense, and more prone to breakages. [3] There is also concern that, in aviation, the female body is not as adept at handling the increased g-forces experienced by combat pilots. Furthermore, health issues regarding women are argued as the reason vast majority of submarine services from accepting women, although mixed-gender accommodations in a small space is also an issue, as is explained in more depth below.[4] The Center for Military Readiness stated that “Female soldiers who are, on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50 percent less upper body strength and 25-30 percent less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance”.[4]

However, an article in the Army Times, July 29, 1996, states that some women do possess the physical attributes suitable to become combat soldiers.[5]

Psychological concerns

The disruption of a combat unit's esprit de corps is cited as another reason for women to be banned from front-line combat situations. Indeed, many soldiers have stated that they could not trust a woman to perform her duties in a place where trusting their fellow soldier would be critical,[5][6] although the example of Raven 42 demonstrated women were quite effective in direct combat.[1] There is a secondary concern that romantic relationships between men and women on the front lines could disrupt a unit's fighting capability and a fear that a high number of women would deliberately become pregnant in order to escape combat duties.[7][4] In the British Army, which continues to bar women from serving in infantry-roled units, all recruits joining to fill infantry vacancies partake in a separate training program called the Combat Infantryman's Course. This all-male course is kept segregated from other training courses in part to maintain the "Boy's Club" culture that has proven effective within such units.

In the American armed forces, the 1994 rules forbidding female involvement in combat units of battalion size or smaller are being bent. Colonel Cheri Provancha, stationed in Iraq, argues that: "This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it.”[8] The fact that women already engage in combat in today’s armed forces counters the idea that women do not possess a sufficiently aggressive mentality to kill enemy soldiers.

A third argument against the inclusion of women in combat units is that placing women in combat where they are at risk of being captured and tortured and possibly sexually assaulted is unacceptable. In a Presidential Commission report it was found that male POWs, while being subject to physical abuse, were never subject to sexual abuse, and women were almost always subject to sexual abuse.[4] Rhonda Cornum, then a major and flight surgeon, and now a colonel and Command Surgeon for United States Army Forces Command, was an Iraqi POW in 1991. At the time, she was asked not to mention that she had been molested while in captivity. [9]. Cornum subsequently disclosed the attack, but said "A lot of people make a big deal about getting molested," she noted later, adding: "But in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list."

This point is countered, however, by the fact that women who are currently in non-combat roles are still exposed to the risk of capture and sexual abuse, yet are not given the weapons or training to adequately defend themselves through combat. Furthermore, it is argued that women who joined the military in combat roles would almost certainly be aware of the risks and accept them. It is also worth remembering that male soldiers are frequently abused by their captors, and this has on numerous occasions included severe psychological and sexual abuse. In general, it can be stated that volunteer soldiers are expected to have accepted the risk of such treatment when enlisting, regardless of gender.

Many also argue that by not incorporating women into combat, we are not tapping into another source of soldiers for military combat operations. These sources claim that we are creating a military that treats our women as second-class citizens and not equals of men.[10] Other sources expound on the extra resources fact, and state that without women, the military would have numerous manpower shortfalls they would not be able to fill.[11]

Sex discrimination and tradition

Many view the exclusion of women from military combat jobs as the last bastion of sex discrimination. Some believe that women are forbidden to serve in these roles only as a result of the traditionalist view of soldiering as a profession for men and that the equal opportunity laws should apply to the military. Many point out that there are many historical examples of women achieving much on the battlefield in combat roles.

Tactical concerns

In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman briefly mentions that female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces have been officially prohibited from serving in close combat military operations since 1948 (in 2001, subsequent to publication, women began serving in IDF combat units on an experimental basis). The reason for removing female soldiers from the front lines is no reflection on the performance of female soldiers, but that of the male infantrymen after witnessing a woman wounded. The IDF saw a complete loss of control over soldiers who apparently experienced an uncontrollable, protective, instinctual aggression.

Grossman also notes that Islamic militants rarely, if ever, surrender to female soldiers. In modern warfare where intelligence is perhaps more important than enemy casualties, every factor, even making concessions to sexism, reducing combatants' willingness to fight is considered. Similarly, Iraqi and Afghani civilians are often not intimidated by female soldiers. However, in such environments, having female soldiers serving within a combat unit does have the advantage of allowing for searches on female civilians, and in some cases the female areas of segregated mosques, while causing less offense amongst the occupied population. A notable example of this would be the so-called "Lionesses," female US military personnel who are specially selected to participate in patrols and raids for this purpose.

Melody Kemp mentions that the Australian soldiers have voiced similar concern saying these soldiers "are reluctant to take women on reconnaissance or special operations, as they fear that in the case of combat or discovery, their priority will be to save the women and not to complete the mission. Thus while men might be able to be programmed to kill, it’s is not as easy to program men to neglect women."[12] Such issues however are also raised within units where members of the same family are present, as is often the case in "regional" units such as those of the United States National Guard. It is often the case that brothers, fathers and sons or other close male relatives may serve in close proximity to one another, and as such may feel more compelled to protect each other at the expense of other priorities than would be the case in a unit which did not have immediate relatives serving together.

Recent history of changes in women's roles by country


Wing Commander Linda Corbould, the first woman to command a Royal Australian Air Force flying squadron, training in a USAF C-17 Globemaster III

The first women became involved with the Australian armed forces with the creation of the Army Nursing Service in 1899. Currently, women make up 12.8 percent of the Australian Defence Force (with 15.1 percent in the Royal Australian Air Force, 14.6 percent in the Royal Australian Navy and 10.5 percent in the Australian Army) and 17.5 percent of the reserves.[13] However, only 74 percent of the total number of available roles in the Australian armed forces are available to women. Despite this, using 1998-99 figures, the ADF had the highest percentage of women in its employ in the world.[14]

Health and safety reasons exclude women from surface finishing and electroplating within the Air Force due to the use of embryo-toxic substances.

Until recently, Australia did not permit women to serve in the following military positions involving 'direct combat', as defined by the 1983 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW):

  • Clearance diving teams
  • Infantry including Special Forces
  • Armour
  • Artillery
  • Combat Engineers
  • Airfield Defence Guards or Ground Defence Officers

Australia was the second country to permit female crew on submarines, doing so in June 1998 on board Collins Class submarines. Australia's first deployment of female sailors in a combat zone was aboard the HMAS Westralia in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War.

In 1992, allegations of alleged sexual harassment on board HMAS Swan were investigated, and in 1998 similar allegations arose in the Australian Defence Force Academy.

On September 27 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that women would be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles in the future.[15] In January 2013, the ban on frontline female soldiers was lifted and the Australian Defence Force opened up its most demanding and dangerous frontline jobs, including special forces work, to female soldiers.[16]


Women joined the British Armed forces in all roles except those whose "primary duty is to close with and kill the enemy"; Infantry, Armor, Commando, Airfield Defence, Special Air Service or Special Boat Service. In addition medical reasons preclude service in the Royal Navy Submarine Service or as Mine Clearance Divers.

Female personnel currently make up around nine percent of the British armed forces.[17] However, female combatants can be found throughout Britain’s military history.[18]

An early example is Queen Boudica, who led warriors of the Iceni tribe against Roman forces occupying Britain around 62, her legacy being often quoted in support of arguments calling for the full opening up of the British Armed forces to women.

During the 1776 American War of Independence, it is estimated that over 5000 women accompanied British forces. Many of these would have been the wives of high ranking officers with a large proportion being the wives of serving soldiers. While as much as possible women were left in the camp, they sometimes accompanied forces in their baggage trains serving as cooks or nurses, and were occasionally caught in combat and killed or taken prisoner. Similarly women accompanied men in ships of the Royal Navy, in combat being employed as powder monkeys or assisting surgeons.

During World War I the British Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed; Lieutenant-General H. Lawson recommended using it in France in 1917. Sir Neville Macready, the Adjutant-General, supported the idea that women and men should be treated the same at the front. Women served in the British Army during World War One as cooks, medical staff and clerical staff, however women were not permitted to be officers, and there were many disputes over pay. In 1917 the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed, although then disbanded in 1919 It provided catering and administrative support, communications and electrician personnel.

Prior to World War II, in 1938 the Auxiliary Territorial Service was created, with 20,000 women serving in non-combat roles during the conflict as well as serving as military police and gun crews. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was incorporated into this service. In 1939 the WRNS was reformed with an increased range of shore-based opportunities available.

In 1949 women were officially recognized as a permanent part of British Armed forces, though full combat roles were still available only to men. In this year, the Women's Royal Army Corps was created to replace the WAAC, and in 1950 the ranks were normalized with the ranks of men serving in the British Army.

In 1991 seagoing opportunities were opened to WRNS personnel leading to the full integration of the WRNS with the Royal Navy in 1993. To date several female personnel have commanded small ships of the RN and the current Commanding Officer of HM Naval Base, Clyde is a former WRNS Officer.

In 1992 British Army units devoted only to women were disbanded, and women were distributed amongst the same units in which men served.

The seizure of Royal Navy sailor Faye Turney in 2007 by the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard led to some media comment on the role of women and mothers in the armed forces.[19]

The commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces is a woman (Queen Elizabeth II) though her position is only nominal.


During the First World War, over 2300 women served overseas in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Canadian women were also organized into possible uniformed home guard units, undertaking military training in paramilitary groups. During the Second World War, 5000 women of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps again served overseas, however they were not permitted to serve on combat warships or in combat teams. The Canadian Army Women's Corps was created during the Second World War, as was the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division).As well, 45,000 women served as support staff in every theatre of the conflict, driving heavy equipment, rigging parachutes, and performing clerical work, telephone operation, laundry duties and cooking. Some 5000 women performed similar occupations during Canada’s part in the Korean War of 1950-1953.

In 1965 the Canadian government decided to allow a maximum of 1,500 women to serve directly in all three branches of its armed forces, and the former "women's services" were disbanded. In 1970 the government created a set of rules for the armed forces designed to encourage equal opportunities. These included the standardization of enlistment criteria, equal pay and pensions, and allowing women to enroll in all aspects of the Canadian armed forces and making it possible for women to reach any rank. In 1974 the first woman, Major Wendy Clay, earned her pilot's wings in the newly integrated Canadian Forces, and four years later the first woman qualified for the Canadian skydiving demonstration team, the Skyhawks.

Between 1979 and 1985 the role of women expanded further, with military colleges allowing women to enroll. 1981 saw the first female navigator and helicopter pilot, and in 1982 laws were passed ending all discrimination in employment, and combat related roles in the Canadian armed forces were opened for women, with no restrictions in place, with the exception of the submarine service. In 1986 further laws were created to the same effect. The following years saw Canada’s first female infantry soldier, first female gunner, and a female Brigadier-General.

In 1990 the Ministers Advisory Board on Women in the Canadian Forces was created, and in 1994 a woman was promoted to Major-General. In 2000 Major Micky Colton became the first female to log 10000 flying hours in a C-130 Hercules. Women were permitted to serve on board Canadian submarines in 2002 with the acquisition of the Victoria-class submarine. Master Seaman Colleen Beattie became the first female submariner in 2003.

Canadian women have also become clearance divers, and commanded large infantry units and Canadian warships.

On May 17, 2006, Captain Nichola Goddard became the first Canadian woman killed in combat during operations in Afghanistan.


Women were employed in the Danish armed forces as early as 1934 with the Ground Observer Corps, Danish Women’s Army Corps and Naval Corps in 1946 and the Women’s Air Force since 1953. In 1962 the Danish parliament passed laws allowing women to volunteer in the regular Danish armed forces as long as they did not serve in units experiencing direct combat. 1971 saw the enlistment of women as non-commissioned officers, with military academies allowing women in 1974.

In 1978, based on the reports of studies on the topic, women were allowed to enlist in an all areas of the Danish armed forces, with combat trials in the eighties exploring the capabilities of women in combat. In 1998 laws were passed allowing women to sample military life in the same way as conscripted men, however without being completely open to conscription. Women in the Danish military come under the command of the Chief of Defense.[20]

As of 2002 the highest rank reached by a woman in the Danish armed forces was Lieutenant Colonel, with five percent (862) women in the services, 98 officers, 191 NCOs, and 571 privates.[20] However recent recruitment of women has been low in Denmark due to rising job opportunities elsewhere. NATO reports also indicate that the Danish military does not promote women to positions of leadership.[20]

As with many nations with women in their armed forces, Denmark has different basic physical requirements for men and women in their armed forces, however the requirements for the more physically demanding jobs do not differ for either sex.


Female soldiers in Eritrea played a large role in both the Eritrean civil wars (1970s and 1980s) and the border dispute with Ethiopia, because they make up more than 25 percent of the Eritrean military.


Female soldiers swearing their military oath alongside with male conscripts.

The Finnish Defense Forces does not conscript women. However, since 1995, women between 18 and 30 years of age have the possibility of voluntarily undertake military service in the Defence Forces or in the Border Guard. Females serve under the same conditions as men, with the exception that during the first 45 days of service they have the option to leave the military without consequences. After that, they must complete the service which lasts 6, 9 or 12 months. After the service, the females face the same reserve obligations as the males who have done the obligatory military service. If the female in national service experiences a conscientious crisis which prevents her from fulfilling her military service or reserve obligations, she is ordered to the alternative civilian service, which lasts 13 months.[21]

All services and units in the Finnish Defence Forces and the Finnish Border Guard accept females. In garrison environment, the females are lodged in separate rooms and are given separate toilet and bath facilities. In exercises and aboard ships, women are lodged with men. The women in national service are given an extra allowance of €0,40 per diem for sanitary articles and smallclothes.[22] The females in military service are usually well motivated and some 60 percent of them receive either NCO or reserve officer training. Yearly, some 500 women complete the voluntary military service, while some 30.000 men complete the obligatory conscription.[23]

Female Red Guard soldier from Finnish Civil War

The women who have completed the voluntary military service are eligible for further military employment. If they have at least NCO training, they can apply for career NCO positions or for officer training. These career paths have been open since 1996, when the first women completed the military service. In 2005, 32 female career officers were in service. The number of female warrant officers was 16 and the number of female specialist officers 7. In comparison, there were a total of 2.584 officers and 894 specialist officers in service. The women made up about 16 percent of the total career NCO cadre. However, most of these career NCOs were grandfathered former female enlistees who had not undertaken military service.[24]

Members of Lotta Svärd in air control duty during the Continuation War

The history of women in the Finnish military is, however, far longer than just since 1995. During the Finnish Civil War, the Reds had several Naiskaarti (Women's Guard) units made of voluntary 16 to 35 year old women, who were given rudimentary military training. They fought alongside with men, and were known for their ferociousness, on occasion forcing even German regulars to retreat. After the Civil War the reactions on women in military were ambivalent: on one hand, the fighting women of the Reds were shunned, but also admired and compared to the "amazons of old".[25] The Finnish National Guard (Suojeluskunta) founded the female organization, Lotta Svärd in November 1918. While the Lottas were not front line fighting units per sé, as a paramilitary organization they handled several important second-line duties freeing men to the actual fighting service. A voluntary Lotta unit manned an searchlight battery of Finnish anti-aircraft artillery in defense of Helsinki in 1944.[26] After the Continuation War, Lotta Svärd was declared a "paramilitary organization" and absolved in 1944.[27]

In 1961, the Finnish Defence Forces started to enlist females for second-line duties. The duties available to women were radar operator, sea-control person, and C3 person. Most of the female enlisted served in coastal artillery and Finnish Air Force. The women enlisted all served in the rank of värvätty (enlisted), using a special female uniform. In 1994, the female enlisted were given the same status as military persons as the male enlisted. At the same time, the women who had undergone the voluntary military service received the possibility to be recruited for all military careers. In the beginning of the year 2007, the term enlisted (värvätty) was changed to NCO (aliupseeri) to better recognize the change in the duties of this personnel group. The female enlistees who had not undertaken military service were grandfathered. They remain in the rank of enlistee unless they complete the conscript NCO course.[28]

The non-combat duties in Finnish Defence Forces peace-keeping operations opened to women in 1991. At first, the women without previous military training experienced rather large problems in the Finnish peace-keeping units, most remarkably in the Republic of Macedonia in mid-1990s. Since the introduction of the voluntary military service, the women have mostly the same training as the men which has lessened the problems. Only a handful of women without military training, mostly nurses or social service personnel, are serving with the Finnish peace-keeping forces. All duties in Finnish foreign operations are open to women, provided they have the necessary military training.[29][30]


A December 2006 study shows that women represent 19 percent of all French military personnel. They are allowed to serve in all posts (including combat infantry), except submarines and riot control gendarmerie. However, they still represent a small part of the personnel in the following specialties: combat, security, mechanics, especially within the infantry and marines (only 337 - 1.7 percent - combat infantry soldiers and 9 - 0.4 percent - marines are female).


Since the creation of the Bundeswehr in 1955, Germany had employed one of the most conservative gender-policies of any NATO country. That was generally regarded as a reaction of the deployment of young women at the end of World War II. Though women were exempt from direct combat functions in accordance with Nazi-ideology, several hundred thousand German women, along with young boys and sometimes girls (as Flakhelfer), served in Luftwaffe artillery units; their flak shot down thousands of Allied warplanes.[31]

In the year 1975 the first women were appointed for the medical service of the German Bundeswehr. In 1994 Verena von Weymarn accomplished the grade "Surgeon General of the Air Force." But it was not until January 2001 that women first joined German combat units, following a court ruling by the European Court of Justice. The change in the law was prompted after a female electronics operative argued her case to the European Court of Justice. The court ruled that preventing women from occupying combat roles in the armed forces was against sexual equality principles. Of the first 1900 women who signed up following the law change, 244 were admitted on the first day of the new rules, the majority of them joining the army and air force[32]. Before the law change 4,400 women only occupied medical or musical roles within the German armed forces. The new legislations initially did not receive full military support. A report on the subject commented that, regarding the older male soldiers, "The way they see themselves as male fighters is shattered." [er Spiegel, a leading German magazine, produced an article taking negative views of the new laws. Like many countries who have accepted women into combat roles, Germany conducts special courses on preventing sexual harassment[32].

After several years of experience the commotion inside the Bundeswehr has now remarkably decreased. Today women are regularly being sent to foreign deployments.[33] As of April 2008 about 15,200 female soldiers serve in the Bundeswehr, representing a share of eight percent of all troops except conscripted soldiers. The German Bundeswehr now expects the percentage of all female personnel to rise to about 15 percent in the middle-term future.[34]

It was recently released that the first woman in the German air force received her jet fighter license.[35] A handful more are flying helicopters and transport planes.


Several women transport pilots served in the 1948 war of independence and "Operation Kadesh" in 1956), but later the Air Force closed its ranks to female pilots. There is a draft of both men and women. Most women serve in non-combat positions, and are conscripted for less than two years (instead of three for men). However, they were largely barred from combat until a landmark high court appeal in 1994, which forced the Air Force to accept women air cadets. In 2001, Israel's first female combat pilot received her wings. Until 2005, up to 83 percent of positions in the Israeli army were open to women, and today, they serve in combat positions in the artillery, frontier guards and on Navy ships. Combat duty is voluntary for women.


Libya is the only Islamic nation to have women in the military.[36] The 200-strong unit is Colonel Kadaffi's personal bodyguard and is called variously the "Green Nuns" and "The Amazonian Guard" or more commonly in Libya The Revolutionary Nuns (Arabic:الراهبات الثوريات).[37]

New Zealand

New Zealand has no restrictions on roles for women in its defense force. They are able to serve in the Special Air Service, infantry, armor and artillery. This came into effect in 2001 by subordinate legislation.


It is worth noting that Peoples Liberation Army, the armed forces of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) have a 30 percent female participation quota for their combat forces, and frequently claim 40 percent actual participation.[38] A proposal of a 40 percent female combat troop quota in the future Nepal Army has been frequently forwarded publicly by Maoist leaders during their peace negotiations with the current government.


Women in Norway have been able to fill military roles since 1938, and during the Second World War both enlisted women and female officers served in all branches of the military. However in 1947 political changes commanded that women only serve in civilian posts, with reservists allowing women to join them in 1959.

Between 1977 and 1984, the Norwegian Parliament passed laws expanding the role of women in the Norwegian Armed Forces, and in 1985 equal opportunities legislation was applied to the military. Norwegian women are permitted to serve on a voluntary basis, however in the event of national mobilization they will be under the same pressures as men. However, women who have not undergone military training will not be asked to serve in a military capacity, but rather in a civilian capacity.

In 1995, Norway became the first country to allow women to serve on its military submarines, and to this date there has been at least one female commander of a Norwegian submarine.[39] The first was Solveig Krey in 1995.[40]

The Norwegian government has set a target of 15 percent of their armed forces to consist of women by 2008, from the 2006 value of 6.6 percent.[41] This aim is accompanied by efforts to increase the awareness of sexual exploitation and gender issues within the armed forces. All women between 18-20 are given the opportunity to attend national conscription selection.

The highest rank currently attained by a woman in the Norwegian armed forces is that of Rear Admiral.[42]


In Poland women have taken part in the battles for independence against occupiers and invaders since at least the time of the Napoleonic Wars. During the occupation by the Nazis, 1939-1945, several thousand women took part in the resistance movement as members of the Home Army. The Germans were forced to establish special prisoner-of-war camps after the Warsaw Rising in 1944 to accommodate over a thousand women prisoners.[43]

In April 1938 the law requiring compulsory military service for men included provisions for voluntary service of women in auxiliary roles, in the medical services, in the anti-aircraft artillery and in communications. In 1939 a Women's Military Training Organization was established under the command of Maria Wittek.

In present Poland a law passed 6 April 2004 requires all women with college nursing or veterinary degrees to register for compulsory service. In addition it allows women to volunteer and serve as professional personnel in all services of the army. As of June 30, 2007, there are 800 women in the army, of which 471 are officers, 308 non-commissioned officers and 21 other ranks, in addition 225 are in military training schools.[44]


Women in Russia have had the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces throughout the post Second World War period, with many all-female units existing as far back as World War One. By the early 1990s, 100,000 women made up three percent of the Russian Armed Forces, with the current tally standing at around 115,000 to 160,000, representing ten percent of Russia’s military strength.

During the First World War, heavy defeats led to the loss of millions of Russian soldiers. To psychologically energize morale Alexander Kerensky (leader of Russia after the February Revolution) ordered the creation of the Woman’s Death Battalion in May 1917. After three months of fighting, the size of this all-female unit fell from 2000 to 250.[45] In November 1917, the Bolsheviks dissolved the unit.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union had a female military strength of over one million women[46] who served as snipers, machine gunners, and tank crew members. Very few of these women, however, were ever promoted to officers.

In 1942 the Soviet Union formed three regiments of women combat pilots to fly night bombing missions over Germany, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later called the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. These women took part in regular harassment bombing against the Germans in Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, and participated in the final onslaught against Berlin. The regiments, collectively known to the Germans as the "Nachthexen" ("Night Witches"), flew more than 24,000 sorties and won in total 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals. Some of the most talented women pilots were assigned day fighter duties. "Lily" Litvak and Katya Budanova became fighter aces flying the Soviet Union's best fighter designs alongside men in day attacks. Both were killed in their aircraft. Meanwhile, in the ground combat role Lyudmila Pavlichenko, made 309 confirmed kills including 36 enemy snipers. Pavlichenko was one of the many female snipers of the Soviet Army.

In 1967, the Russian Universal Military Duty Laws concluded that women offered the greater source of available combat soldiers during periods of large scale mobilization. Thus, several programs during the height of the cold war were set up to encourage women to enlist. Participation in military orientated youth programs and forced participation in the reserves for ex-servicewomen up to the age of 40 are some examples. Universities contained reservist officer training which accompanied a place in the reserves themselves.

Today, the Russian army runs the Miss Russian Army beauty contest for attractive female Russian soldiers. Colonel Gennady Dzyuba, of the Defense Ministry, said of the 2005 contest that "Those who have served, especially in hot spots, know the importance of women in the armed forces.”

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) was the first service of the Sri Lankan military to allow women to serve, accepting female recruits to the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force in 1972. The Sri Lanka Army followed in 1979 with the establishment of the Sri Lanka Army Women's Corps (SLAWC). Since then, each service has for both administrative and practical reasons maintained separate units for women. These are the SLAWC and the SLAF Women's Wing; the Sri Lanka Navy does not have a specific name for women's units. In order to maintain discipline, all three services have women MPs attached to their respective military police/provost corps.

Currently, female personnel of all three services play an active part in ongoing operations. However, there are certain limitations in 'direct combat' duties such as special forces, pilot branch, naval fast attack squadrons. These are only a few restrictions; female personnel have been tasked with many front line duties and attached to combat units such as paratroops, SLAF Regiment, as well as undertaken support services such as control tower operators, electronic warfare technicians, radio material teletypewriters, automotive mechanics, aviation supply personnel, cryptographers, doctors, combat medics, lawyers, engineers and aerial photographers. In the Sri Lanka Navy female personnel were at first limited to the medical branch, however currently both lady officers and female rates are able to join any branch of service including the executive branch. With the escalation of the Sri Lankan civil war, many female personnel have come under enemy fire both directly and indirectly thus taking many casualties including fatalities. As of 2008 there were three female officers of the rank of Major General and one Commodore.

The Sri Lanka Civil Defence Force, formerly the Sri Lanka Home Guard, has been open to women recruits since 1988. In 1993, these guardswomen were issued firearms and deployed to protect their home towns and villages against attacks by LTTE terrorists. As a result, there have been many casualties (including fatalities) from attacks.


Since 1989 there are no gender restrictions in the Swedish military on access to military training or positions. They are allowed to serve in all parts of the military and in all positions, including combat.


Thailand has recently begun recruiting and training women to conduct counter-insurgency operations. A ranger commander said that when women are protesting, "It is better for women to do the talking. Male soldiers look tough and aggressive. When women go and talk, people tend to be more relaxed."


Sabiha Gökçen (March 22, 1913, Bursa—March 22, 2001, Ankara) was the first female combat pilot in the world, as well as the first Turkish female aviator. She was one of the eight adoptive children of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Throughout her career in the Turkish Air Force, Gökçen flew 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions. She was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996.[47]

In 1935, she was enrolled in the Turkish Aviation League's "Turk Kusu" Civilian Aviation School. She was sent to Russia, together with seven male students for advanced training in gliding; and subsequently enrolled at the Military Aviation Academy in Eskisehir in 1936. She also received training at the First Aircraft Regiment in Eskisehir, and flew fighter and bomber planes. In 1938, she carried out a five-day flight around the Balkan countries to great acclaim. Later, she was appointed chief trainer of the Turkish Aviation League's "Turk Kusu" where she served until 1955. Later, she became a member of the Turkish Aviation Executive Board. She flew around the world for a period of 28 years until 1964. [47]

United States

The first American woman soldier was Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts. She enlisted as a Continental Army soldier under the name of "Robert Shurtlief."[48] She served for three years in the Revolutionary War and was wounded twice; she cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so no doctor would find out she was a woman. Finally, at the end of the hostilities her secret was discovered—even so, George Washington gave her an honorable discharge. She later lectured on her experiences and became a champion of women's rights.

During the Civil War, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted under the alias of Private Lyons Wakeman. She served in the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Her complete letters describing her experiences as a female soldier in the Union Army are reproduced in the book, An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864.[49]

In the history of women in the military, there are records of female U.S. Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers who enlisted using male pseudonyms, but a letter written by Annie Oakley to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, may represent the earliest documentary proof of a political move towards recognizing a woman's right to serve in the United States military. Annie Oakley, Sharpshooter and star in the Buffalo Bill Show, wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, "offering the government the services of a company of 50 'lady sharpshooters' who would provide their own arms and ammunition should war break out with Spain."[50] The Spanish-American War did occur, but Oakley's offer was not accepted. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's Vice President, did, however, name his volunteer cavalry the "Rough Riders" after the "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World" where Oakley was a major star.

The Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps was established in the United States in 1941. However, political pressures stalled the waylaid attempts to create more roles for women in the American Armed Forces. Women saw combat during World War II, first as nurses in the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941. The Woman’s Naval Reserve and Marine Corps Women’s Reserve were also created during this conflict. In July 1943 a bill was signed removing ‘auxiliary’ from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, making it an official part of the regular army. In 1944 WACs arrived in the Pacific and landed in Normandy on D-Day. During the war, 67 Army nurses and 16 Navy nurses were captured and spent three years as Japanese prisoners of war. There were 350,000 American women who served during World War Two and 16 were killed in action; in total, they gained over 1500 medals, citations and commendations.

Virginia Hall, serving with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), received the second-highest US combat award, the Distinguished Service Cross, for action behind enemy lines in France. Hall, who had one artificial leg, landed clandestinely in occupied territory aboard a British Motor Torpedo Boat.

After World War Two, demobilization led to the vast majority of serving women being returned to civilian life. Law 625, The Women's Armed Services Act of 1948, was signed by President Truman, allowing women to serve in the armed forces in fully integrated units during peace time, with only the WAC remaining a separate female unit. During the Korean War of 1950–1953 many women served in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, with women serving in Korea numbering 120,000 during the conflict.

Records regarding American women serving in the Vietnam War are vague. However, it is recorded that 600 women served in the country as part of the Air Force, along with 500 members of the WAC, and over 6000 medical personnel and support staff.

America’s involvement in Grenada in 1983 saw over 200 women serving; however, none of these took part in direct combat. Some women, such as Lt Col Eileen Collins or Lt Celeste Hayes, flew transport aircraft carrying wounded or assault teams, however they were not deemed to have been in direct combat. Several hundred women also took part in operations in Panama in 1989, though again in non-combat roles.

December 20, 1989, Capt Linda L. Bray, 29, became the first woman to command American soldiers in battle, during the invasion of Panama. She was assigned to lead a force of 30 men and women MPs to capture a kennel holding guard dogs that was defended by elements of the Panamanian Defense force. From a command center about a half-mile from the kennel she ordered her troops to fire warning shorts. The Panamanians returned fire until threatened by artillery attack, fleeing into nearby woods. Bray advanced to the kennel to try to stop them, using the cover of a ditch to reach the building. No enemy dead were found, but a cache of weapons was recovered.

The 1991 Gulf War proved to be the pivotal time for the role of women in the American Armed forces to come to the attention of the world media. A senior woman pilot at the time, Colonel Kelly Hamilton, commented that "[t]he conflict was an awakening for the people in the US. They suddenly realized there were a lot of women in the military." Over 40,000 women served in almost every role the armed forces had to offer. However, while many came under fire, they were not permitted to participate in deliberate ground engagements. Despite this, there are many reports of women engaging enemy forces during the conflict.[51]

From 2005, the first all female C-130 Hercules crew to serve a combat mission for the U.S. Air Force.[52]

Today, women can serve on American combat ships, including in command roles. However women are not permitted to serve on submarines or to participate in special forces programs such as Navy Seals. Women enlisted soldiers are barred from serving in Infantry, Special Operations, Artillery, Armor, and Forward Air Defense, however female officers can hold staff positions in every branch of the army except infantry and armor. Women can fly military aircraft and make up two percent of all pilots in the US military. So far the position closest to combat open to women in the U.S. Army are in the Military Police, where women man machine-guns on armored Humvees, guarding truck convoys. Although Army regulations bar women from infantry assignments, some female MPs are detailed to accompany male infantry units to handle search and interrogation of Iraqi suspects.

Jessica Lynch after being rescued in 2003

The case United States v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ordered that the Virginia Military Institute allow women to register as cadets, gave women soldiers a weapon against laws which (quoting J. Ruth Bader Ginsburg) “[deny] to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature—equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

In 2003, American soldier Jessica Lynch was captured while serving in Iraq. When surrounded by Iraqi soldiers, she attempted to defend herself, but her M-16 jammed. In the same action, Lori Piestewa, a U.S. soldier, died after driving her Humvee through enemy fire in an attempt to escape an ambush, earning a Purple Heart. She had just rescued Jessica Lynch, whose vehicle had crashed.

In a recent scandal, U.S Army Reservists Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman were convicted by court martial of cruelty and maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

SGT Leigh Ann Hester, awarded the Silver Star for direct combat

SGT Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to receive the Silver Star, the third-highest US decoration for valor, for direct participation in combat. Female medical personnel had been awarded the same medal, but not for actual combat. She was a team leader of Raven 42, a Military Police squad that broke up an ambush roughly three to four times its strength. Specialist Ashley Pullen received the Bronze Star. The squad leader, SSG Timothy Nein, had originally received the Silver Star, but his award was later upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. SGT Jason Mike, the unit's medic, also received the Silver Star.

SPC Monica Brown, an Army medic who received the Silver Star for rescuing, under fire, wounded soldiers in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, Monica Lin Brown, was presented the Silver Star for shielding wounded soldiers with her body, and then treating life-threatening injuries.[53]

Women on submarines

Following the advent of submarine warfare the majority of submarine operators do not allow female personnel to serve in submarines as a matter of course. Stated justification include both social and physiological issues.

The Royal Norwegian Navy became the first navy in the world to permit female personnel to serve in submarines, appointing a female submarine captain in 1995, followed by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1998 and thereafter Canada and Spain, all operators of conventional submarines.

Social reasons include the need to segregate accommodation and facilities, with figures from the US Navy highlighting the increased cost, $300,000 per bunk to permit women to serve on submarines versus $4,000 per bunk to allow women to serve on aircraft carriers.[54]

The US Navy allows three exceptions for women being on board military submarines: (1) Female civilian technicians for a few days at most; (2) Women midshipmen on an overnight during summer training for both Navy ROTC and Naval Academy; (3) Family members for one-day dependent cruises.


As women strove to achieve equality with men and parity in employment, the military was one of many professions that resisted opening its doors to them. Many men considered it inappropriate for women to be placed in danger, regarding it as the responsibility of men to defend and protect women and children. This instinct may have deep psychological roots. Justice however does require that women, if they wish, have parity with men in all spheres. Women have proved their courage, ability and endurance under the harshest conditions, include combat situations.

However, as humanity completes what some regard as a maturation process, renounces war and violence as childish and embraces non-violent means to resolve difference and disputes, it will one day be no longer necessary for men or women to become professional military personnel.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Jon Soucy, 2007. Heroes Turn Out for Exhibit Opening at Army Women's Museum. American Forces Press Service. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  2. Israelis debate use of women in combat. Naharnet. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  3. Alana D. Cline, G. Richard Jansen, and Christopher L. Melby. Stress Fractures in Female Army Recruits: Implications of Bone Density, Calcium Intake, and Exercise. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 17(2)(1998):128. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Women in Combat: Frequently Asked Questions. Center for Military Readiness. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jake Willens, Women in the Military: Combat Roles Considered. CDI.org. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  6. Barbara A. Wilson, Women in Combat: Why Not? Userpages.aug.com. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  7. Philip Gold and Erin Solaro, Facts about women in combat elude the right. Seattle PI. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  8. Ann Scott Tyson, For Female GIs, Combat Is a Fact. Washington Post, May 13, 2005. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  9. Nicholas D. Kristof, April 25, 2003, A Woman's Place. quoted from The New York Times. ambrosiasw.com. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  10. Louise M. Slaughter, Remarks on Women in Combat. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  11. Douglas Hanson,Another Clinton legacy American Thinker, 2005. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  12. Melody Kemp, Femme Fatale: Women in the Military Service. isiswomen.org. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  13. Women in the ADF. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  14. Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  15. Jeremy Thompson, Women cleared to serve in combat ABC News, September 27, 2011. Retrieved September 10, 2013.
  16. Anna Henderson, Ban lifted, but few women apply for combat roles ABC News, April 25 2013. Retrieved September 10, 2013.
  17. Defence Factsheet, Women in the Armed Forces. UK Ministry of Defence. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  18. Article on Women in Combat. BBC News, March 29, 2007. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  19. Sarah Sands, 2007. Only the capture of Prince Harry could have done more damage. The Independent(UK). Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Denmark., March 26, 2002 update, NATO/IMS: Committee on Women in the NATO Forces. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  21. (Finnish) Law on the voluntary military service for women (194/1995). Finlex. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  22. Finnish Defence Forces. Naiset armeijassa. (Finnish) www.mil.fi. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  23. (Finnish) Naisten vapaaehtoinen asepalvelus. Finnish Defence Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  24. (Finnish) Puolustusvoimien henkilöstötilinpäätös 2005, pp. 10–11. Finnish Defence Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  25. Turun Yliopisto, (Finnish) Naissoturin muotokuva. Vanha.hum.utu.fi. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  26. (Finnish) Teknologiaohjelma tukee tulevaisuuden hankintoja. Finnish Defence Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  27. (Finnish) Lotta Svärd -järjestön lakkauttaminen. Syvärannan lottamuseo. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  28. (Finnish) Aliupseerit: Sotilasammattihenkilöistä aliupseereiksi. Finnish Defence Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  29. (Finnish) Naisista tasa-arvoisia rauhanturvaajia. MTV3 news service. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  30. (Finnish) Naiset rauhanturvatehtäviin vapaaehtoisen asepalveluksen kautta. Finnish Defence Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  31. D'Ann Campbell, "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union." Journal of Military History 57 (1993):301-323.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Women join German fighting forces. BBC News January 2, 2001. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  33. Germany Marks Five Years of Women in Armed Forces. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  34. Starke Truppe – Immer mehr Frauen entscheiden sich für die Bundeswehr (Powerful troop - more and more women join the Bundeswehr). Bundeswehr. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  35. First woman to attain air force qualification as jet pilot. Die Bundersregierung. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  36. Gadhafi’s Angels: The Green Nuns of the Revolution. Tao Of Defiance. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  37. Bremmer, Charles. 2007. Adieu, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a tricky guest. The Times. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  38. Horning, Neil. 2006. "Q & A with a rebel commissar," Myagdi and Pokhara, Maoist Army in Writing: Interview With Comrade Commissar. blog.com.np. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  39. Interview: Kristin Krohn Devold: Norwegian defense minister. Nato Review. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  40. Forsvarsnett: Kvinner. Fakta om Forsvaret. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  41. Norway - 1 National Report 2006. NATO. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  42. Forsvarnett: Weeks 4-6: End of mission. Norwegian Armed Forces. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  43. Women Soldiers of the Polish Home Army. Marek Ney-Krwawicz. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  44. Women in army. Departament Kadr. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  45. Women's Death Battalion. Spartacus. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  46. Mary Louise O'Brien, Women and the Soviet Military. Airpower.maxwell.af.mil. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  47. 47.0 47.1 Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix. CTIE. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  48. Alfred F. Young. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. (New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN 0679761853.)
  49. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Cook. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. (1994).
  50. Letter to President William McKinley from Annie Oakley. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  51. Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm: Women Were There! AUG LINK Communications. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  52. Michael G. Johnson, First All-female Crew Flies Combat Mission. Defend America. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  53. Micah E. Clare, Face of Defense: Woman Soldier Receives Silver Star. Defenselink.mil. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  54. New Debate on Submarine Duty for Women. Armed Forces Careers.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

External links

All links retrieved May 17, 2023.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.