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Long Read Military History

Progressive Insanities: Women in Defence

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Editors note: This article is part of a series focusing on women in defence in response to our call for papers launched on International Woman’s Day 2021. 

Throughout the many examples of progressive activism in history, there have always been critics ardent about maintaining the status quo of their time.  Yet, it is rarely acknowledged by such people that the status-quo of their era has more than likely normalised the progressive goals of a previous one.  What compounds this frustrating obliviousness is that those who seek to discourage progressiveness (whether around gender, race, class, etc.) tend to recycle the same anti-progressive logic as to why “insert issue” is a bad idea.  That is to say, critics of progressive ideas routinely mimic common biases surrounding ideas of precedence, cohesion, or even just participation.

This article argues that by highlighting historical context, it is possible to address the insanities1 found within progressive “debates”2 and display the fallacies of their critical positions.  Done right, this would deny the validity of regressive rhetoric and reduce the taxing efforts too-often required in striving for a more equal and diverse society, let alone in Defence.  So, while there are still those, no matter how few or many, who perceive military service through a gendered lens, continued emphasis is needed until the point where the notion of a soldier is self-evident and not caveated by the term ‘female’.

For instance, a recent piece on this forum by “Richard C.” titled Rethinking Women in Ground Close Combat demonstrates much of what is backward about views toward servicewomen.  “Richard’s” logic is an example of what this author calls ‘regressive insanity’.  What this means is it matches the central tenets of enduring arguments without grasping the double standard that similar logic would label them deeply unpalatable in a different context.  In this instance, these are views seeking to suppress a woman’s military agency based on notions that women are too ‘different’ to participate; that women would imbalance existing cohesions; that there is little to no precedence of successful integration therefore there should not be any.  Fortunately, his views are not monolithic, and there are two excellent rebuttals to his article’s very regressive outlook by Edward Carpenter and Beatrice Ormerod.  What follows here adds to their work and is written to discredit notions such as “Richard’s”.

This article begins by outlining the logic of ‘regressive insanity’ by emphasising the importance of the historical background surrounding woman’s service from World War One to the present day.  This is framed around the three factors of ‘precedence’, ‘cohesion’, and ‘participation’. It concludes with an appeal to reason for all members of the British Army to view the ongoing and increasing discussions around gender as progress in and of itself.

The importance of history

Regressive insanity is a product of unconscious progress within a society or an institution.  The difficulty is that there are no set timelines for when social changes become normalised, and so they become accepted over time without much – if any – awareness. Invariably, it is only with each subsequent episode of activism that it seems so obvious how wrong previous attitudes were. Examples include desegregating racially structured units, especially those within the United States military; lifting the ban on homosexual service persons; officially recognising that servicewomen were actually part of the British Army proper (only in 1992); even something as moot as placing non-graduate officers on the same terms and conditions as graduate officers.  These are all clear-cut areas of past-wrongs from today’s perspective, but they were nonetheless heated “debates” at the time.

No matter how morally corrupt such examples of historical discrimination are perceived in a contemporary light, “debate” at the time was often strong and deeply emotional between progressives and their critics.  The uncomfortable truth is that on so many occasions, large parts of society – often just by staying silent – have sought to maintain the status quo.  But as explained, these issues become social standards in later years so it would be unfeasible to assume every single person who ever placed themselves on the wrong side of history was rotten.  Normalisation could not have occurred in any given instance if there was genuine animosity amongst the masses. Instead, for whatever reason as time goes by, there is a cultural amnesia that allows for a repeat of regressive views when the next phase of social progress kicks in.  Perhaps the reason is a fear of the unknown; the notion that progress requires change and change, to many, is frightening.  As such, understanding the history of any issue provides a basis to appreciate why change has been for good reasons in the past and will continue to be so in the future.

Precedence: World War to Cold War

Three major iterations of woman-specific land forces pre-existed the 1992 absorption of women into the British Army. In order, these were: The Women’s (later Queen Mary’s) Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC/QMAAC), established during the backend of the First World War; The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the later interwar period; and the Woman’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) between 1949 and 1992.3

The rationales for both the WAAC and the ATS were essentially the same: to free up fighting-age men from administrative roles to be ‘better’ utilised on the front lines of both World Wars.4  While the WAAC came into being very late into the First World War, only being formally established in July 1917, the ATS was more forward-thinking in reaction to increasing tensions in Europe and formed in 1938.

female recruiting poster from ww2 ATS

On the face of it, both the WAAC and ATS could appear as a progressive move by the government at the time.  However, their creations were more a product of the lessons learned up to and after 1917 than from any moral compulsion to elevate women’s social positions by way of military social status–a significant attribute of British culture at the time.  Auxiliary roles were founded on an understanding of necessity over anything else acknowledging that half the British population would be unable to resource the human cost of the a world wars.5  The pragmatism that founded the early services was evident in how they were structured: they never fully bestowed women the same status as men.  For example, the rank structure within the WAAC was signified by a bespoke grading system based on flowers (yes, flowers) such as roses or lilies.6  For the ATS, by officially designating women as civilians-in-uniform, women were denied military status entirely.

female recruiting poster from ww2

It may appear academic to criticise this point if indeed the realities of the war hit all the same–which they did. In this sense, many would, and have, argued that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck?  However, such arguments are usually offered by those with the privilege of already being entitled to status in the first place.  The fact is that many of the rights women thought the ATS would provide them through their service were denied.  The experience was actually that women existed alongside, but not inside, the British Army.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the lack of true military status for women would remain unchanged until 1992.  The failure to set any precedent after 1945 has since resulted in very rooted, often unconscious, notions of woman’s unfitting nature for Army service.

Cohesion: Perceptions of Women in Arena  

Though there was a lack of true military status, women in both wars still wore the uniform, and many British men perceived this as humiliating.  Public concerns ranged from the notion of taking orders from a woman, which in very particular circumstances could be the case, to the degradation of masculine self-worth.7  In many areas, these attitudes developed into bullying and slander intended to ‘degrade military women and to drive them out of the ‘man’s world’’.8  For example, ATS women were often referred to as being members of the ‘Auxiliary Tarts Service’.9  In numerous cases, this took the form of sexual harassment through the issuing of demeaning jobs and unwanted advances.  Worse still, this was often justified through assertions that women, having entered the masculine domain, were ‘asking for it’.10  Such was the extent of harassment in the female services (including RAF and Navy equivalents) that they suffered from extreme low morale which ultimately impacted female recruitment.  Levels of recruitment and retention dropped to a point that it was even perceived as a threat to the war effort.11  The long-term consequence of such wide-spread and institutionalised designs to drive women out only perpetuated self-fulfilling social ideas of the female incompatibility for war in those who left.12  Even during the emergency of global war, gendered social dynamics of the time limited the acceptance of structures that ultimately suggested men were not uniquely the guarantors of military victory.

The pervasiveness of cultural sexism at that time, especially toward women in uniform, is epitomised by the following House of Commons exchange between Conservative MP Lady Apsley and then Secretary for War, Sir James Grigg and Sir Archibald Southby.  For cohesion and morale, Lady Apsley requested that women in the ATS be allowed to wear the same berets of men:

Sir J. Grigg: I am not at all sure that this is a suitable time to consider such a proposal. [1944]

Lady Apsley: While thanking my Right Honourable Friend for his reply, might I ask him to bear in mind that the issue of a new cap at the present time would give great satisfaction to members of the ATS?

Sir J. Grigg: It would also, I think, still further cut into the limited supplies of cloth available to civilians.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby: Will my Right Honourable Friend bear in mind that in the Springtime, ladies are rather inclined to think about hats?

All being said, to suggest that cohesion was never positive would be wrong. As mixed-sex service increased during the War, attitudes towards ATS personnel progressed in kind.  In some cases, views increased from thirty percent approval towards participation amongst servicemen to seventy.13  In the long term, the importance of the ATS comes from how the greater the amount of ‘women’s representation in the armed forces the more liberal the ideology of the political leadership’ that would eventually make the legislative changes needed to enforce and consolidate greater social change.14

The ATS was an organisation created to provide support in service areas vacated by men. In this sense, it was hugely successful.  So much so that unlike previous iterations dissolved soon after 1918, the ATS survived World War Two.  Because of this, the precedence of maintaining it should be seen as the first paving stone in the road to the mainstreamed, mixed-gender reality of the contemporary British Army.

Participation: Marching towards modernity

In 1949, Britain decided to follow the American system by creating its own Woman’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC), modelled in direct parallel to the (male) British Army and in succession to the ATS.15  However, though titled a corps, the WRAC was an independent entity that even started with a separate rank structure until eventual alignment in the 1950s.  Women were seconded to British Army to perform administrative duties only.16 This was the state of Army affairs for Cold War Britain (with two notable exceptions17).  For over forty years, men trained in the British Army to combat the USSR, whilst being supported administratively by women who were refused recognition of being part it.  This was overtly demonstrated by their exclusion from even training with weapons.18

It was only in the 1990s that Britain joined together both services by merging women into the British Army proper. Amalgamation began in 1990 when WRAC officers serving within support areas were transferred over onto the same terms and conditions as their male colleagues.  It was completed in 1992 with the creation of the Adjutant General’s Corps and its absorption of the WRAC.19  To be fair, it should be noted that male and female officers were training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst since the early 1980s.20 This was almost certainly influential for future policy changes. Indeed, the experience would have given multiple generations of male officers an appreciation of servicewomen, enabling the cultural shift necessary for the future amalgamation.  It needs caveating, however, that men neither trained alongside women nor did women train to the physical standards of their male colleagues. In actuality, this has been the case for all training establishments until only very recently. It strongly follows that from the very start of one’s military life, segregation at the deeply foundational stages of basic training has been a catalyst for notions that separation between men and woman is self-evident.  Participation will positively reshape this moving forward, as women are no longer tested to lower physical standards, and establishments are now on route to mixing their male and female recruits in training.  In any case, after World War Two, by further entrenching the near solidified link between war and masculinity through keeping a structural separation of sexes, the principle that ‘soldier’ and ‘man’ must be synonymous has endured.  It is only with increased levels of participation in all areas that this perception can be reshaped.

Compared to the past, the 1990s saw woman’s participation in the British Army increase at rapid speeds.  Whether necessity once again played a role in an era of humanitarian intervention, or whether policymakers were influenced by social factors is not concrete.  On one hand, the experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo and of crises such as the Rwandan Genocide would have certainly shaped attitudes to the use of force and the benefits of a gendered perspective.  Civil-military failures in these such areas are argued to have come from a military’s male-framed institutional biases and even led to the United Nations passing Resolution 1325 in 2000 urging UN members to incorporate gender perspectives into security efforts.  On the other hand, the Army maintained segregation between combat and non-combat roles, even in the face of ever-increasing social pressures and allied precedent setting abroad.

Still, the British Army in the 1990s came to understand that it was increasingly seen by society as ‘an institution closely associated with traditional values’.  At the same time, it was and remains, ‘chronically undermanned’.21  If it was to recruit from a generation that increasingly rejected ‘traditional values’, seeing them as a substitute for backwardness, there was an acceptance that the organisation was in ‘urgent need of ethical shake-up’.22  As part of a wider Defence Review in 1998, what resulted was a ‘manning report on fairer employment’ which brought seventy percent of job roles in line with female employment, up from forty-eight percent.23   Combat roles, however, were again still denied.  This, however, all changed in 2016 when UK Government announced the opening of all ground close combat roles to women, ‘without exemption’.24  Why, after so long did this final death knell to segregation transpire?  A possible reason lies in the character of Britain’s modern wars, with their blurred frontlines resulting in unprecedented levels of servicewomen casualties.

two female soldiers on horse back

Of course, due to institutionalised exclusion, the fighting soldiers of any Army have nearly always been men.25  It should come as no surprise then that casualties are correlated in line with this.  All the same, the consequence of a vastly gender-imbalanced fatality ratio has factored heavily into the socially conditioned acceptance that fighting soldiers are, naturally, male.  The issue at hand is not whether sex is a crucial factor regarding warfighting efficiency.  The issue is whether acquiescence to a segregated Army, until recently, was a social hangover that only became uncomfortably questionable with ever-increasing female military participation and inevitably death.

This was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 1.6% of fatalities were servicewomen.  Although these numbers appear “small” (in relation to the fact that the remaining 98.4% were men), these statistics are among the largest in Western military history.  Moreover, with the socio-political nature of contemporary military operations necessitating a greater role for women, these are unlikely to decrease in the future.  As a result, the discussion in culture and society surrounding the female ‘role’ within war was greatly amplified from the turn of the century onwards.  So if the delineation between combat and non-combat roles in the contemporary operating environment was to be increasingly blurred, was the principle of segregation still relevant?  Just like in the 1940s when women entered the same domain as men, the precedent of participation in and of itself generates future trends.  As with how a woman just wearing the uniform was a powerful notion in the past, the thread leading to institutional change in 2016 was pulled throughout the 2000s on the back of a more powerful precedent dictated by war’s modern character: woman’s participation in the ultimate sacrifice.

However, regardless of how many structural boxes become ticked, an ongoing cultural battle is still being waged in this regard.  This battle compounds the dynamics of amplified female participation with traditional stereotypes continuing to harm integration.  That is: female death is routinely presented as a greater issue than male death.  Significantly to blame is an omnipresent media that rarely provides analysis and instead proliferates sensation and perpetuates existing biases.  For example, of the war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been numerous articles explicitly commenting on female casualties, sometimes not even mentioning the men.  The author’s research has yet to discover any mainstream equivalents for male casualties from such a gendered angle.  It stands to reason that this is indicative of the socially accepted normality surrounding man’s role as a soldier, and thus dying as one, compared to that of the servicewoman. And it is not necessarily just about death, but also about a woman’s service in general.

When the Navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard captured the HMS Cornwall in 2007, fifteen Royal Navy and Marine personnel were captured for thirteen days.  However, due to one of these service persons being a woman, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the debate became gendered. For example, Sarah Sands wrote a piece for The Independent titled ‘Only the capture of Prince Harry could have done more damage’. In this article, Sands wrote that in the middle of their capture, ‘one instinct must have blocked out all others [for Turney], the overwhelming wish of a mother to be with her child’. With this, Sands dismisses the other fourteen male prisoners, in fact not mentioning them at all, and suggests that any of their roles as fathers was second to Turney’s as a mother.  Additionally, Sands continued a common trend found within anti-woman participation arguments, writing: ‘does the plight of Turney not demonstrate that women are a dangerous weapon for enemy propaganda?’  In essence, Sands suggestion that Turney’s ‘right to fight’ should be denied is an argument tantamount to victim-blaming.  The alternative would be a complete removal from hostile environments, disenfranchising women from service through no fault of their own, based on what other people might do.  It is not argued that this was Sands’ journalistic angle, only that the biases are deeply real, regardless if the holder is a man or woman.26The author reminds the reader to be aware of them, for they are tools of the regressively insane. This is just but one example.


In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb offers that tangible proofs are best achieved by removing what we think is already wrong in a theory until the conclusion is made that the proof is right27: via negativa, ‘the focus on what something is not.’28In other words, Taleb writes: ‘since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.’  In practice, Taleb’s thinking allows for the rejection of an often-said statement that the Army no longer has gender issues.  This common argument is that, on a structural level, since the most overt examples of female-exclusion have been “resolved” through policy change (confirmation), the matter is closed.  However, even with a small amount of digging to counter this, there are still many areas that prove resolution is hardly the case (disconfirmation): numerous reports of sexual harassment; the lack of balance on a relative scale for senior leadership roles; the use of male-standards, based on the lack of female-driven data, which as one of many possible examples, denies many women appropriate PPE29 and even a uniform that fits properly.

And so, to bring this article full circle, ‘subtractive epistemology’, as Taleb refers to it, can be more easily phrased as the article’s earlier appeal to maintain the emphasis on the topic of gender.  It is still too easy to “disconfirm” the idea that there are no such issues in the Army and so the conversation must continue.  For the people who find such topics irritating, the article’s message that progress cannot be taken for granted needs remembering. History provides the context to root out repetitive arguments which seek to prevent progress.  Remember that from its origins in the First World War up to 1945, the basic notion of women sharing a uniform with men was a significant step forward.  Remember that the catalyst for the post-1990s single-sex Army was a slow and steady cross-pollination in the post-war era, with momentum so limited it took four decades.  Regardless, it is important to still highlight the progress made by the mere precedent; ‘the visible presence and functional role of servicewomen breached the all-male boundary that had hitherto contained the male military’.30 Before women could join the combat arms, they had to be able to wear a uniform in the first place.

A final warning, be wary of manipulators who attempt to abuse history and balance today’s issues against former, absolutist ideas of total exclusion.  They do this to declare irrelevant the more subtle, but no less impactful, problems of today – ones only visible because of the advances made around previous issues. History is not an excuse to halt progress; it is the method to understand how to move forward by appreciating how far back something once was.  Just because the headway made between 1921 and 2021 looks, and is, significant, it does not mean this particular goal of gender equality has been fully achieved.  The persistent emphasis on any progressive subject is the proven route to push through each period to the next, only of course with proper action in tow.  The Army’s ongoing success toward rebalancing past injustices will only be stunted by a mistaken belief that some end state has been reached and the conversation ends.

Al Hynes headshot
Al Hynes

Captain Alan Hynes is Infantry Officer in the Royal Irish Regiment.  He has been deployed on Operation TANGHAM as the Operations Officer.; is a former Aide de Camp to General Officer Commanding 1st (United Kingdom Division); Battle Captain for the Royal Irish Battle Group on Op TORAL VIII; Instructor at the Infantry Training Centre (Catterick); and Rifle Platoon Commander at the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment.


  1. Continuously repeating the same process expecting different results.
  2. Actually, “debate” is a misleading term as it persuades observers from the start that there is fair representation on both sides regarding equality.  It is more akin to a battle of wills from a majority against a minority.  Suggestions of ‘debate’ between a minority group seeking change against a majority comfortable with the status quo only empower regressive thinking through an illusion of legitimacy.
  3. Summerfield & Peniston-Bird, ‘The Home Guard in Britain in the Second World War: Uncertain Masculinities?’ in Higate, P. (2003). Military Masculinities: Identity and State. Praeger: UK: 58; Segal, M. ‘The Role of Women: The Evidence’ in Howes, R. Stevenson, M. (1993). Women and the Use of Military Force. Lynne Rienner Publishers: UK: 82
  4. Kerry, Phillip. (2012). Forewoman Violet Ross, Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Orders & Medals Research Society Journal. Vol 51, No 4: pp. 247-248: 247.
  5. Archer, E. (2017).  Women, Warfare and Representation: American Servicewomen in the Twentieth Century. Bloomsbury: UK: 27.
  6. War Office. (1917). Army Council Instruction No. 1069.
  7. Archer, 2017: 26.
  8. Holm, J. (1992). Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Presidio Press: USA: 52.
  9. Archer, 2017: 71; Treadwell, M. (1954). The Woman’s Army Corps. Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army. DOD: USA: 689).
  10. Ibid; Campbell, 1990: 114.
  11. Campbell, D. ‘Poststructuralism’, in Dunne, T. Kurki, M. Smith, S. (2013). International Relations Theories 3rd Edition. OUP: UK: 115; Archer, 2017: 39
  12. Campbell, 1990: 116.
  13. Treadwell, 1954: 448
  14. Carreiras, H. (2006). Gender and the Military: Women in the Armed Forces of Western Democracies. Cass Military Studies, Routledge: UK: 17.
  15. Bidwell, S. (1977). The Women’s Royal Army Corps. The Trinity Press: UK: 1.
  16. Ibid: 43.
  17. The Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and Royal Irish Regiment (Home Service) were unique in the employment of women into the infantry during Operation BANNER in Northern Ireland and medical services existed within the same corps as male counterparts.
  18. Archer, 2017: 72.
  19. Dannatt, R. (2016). Boots on the Ground: Britain and her Army since 1945. Profile Books: UK: 7.
  20. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile. Random House: UK: 303
  21. Dannatt, 2016: 254.
  22. Woodward, R. ‘Locating Military Masculinities: Space, Place, and the Formation of Gender Identity in the British Army’, in Higate, P. (2003). Military Masculinities: Identity and State. Praeger: UK: 45; Dannatt, 2016: 256.
  23. Fitriani, Randolf G S Cooper & Ron Matthews. (2016). Women in Ground Close Combat, RUSI Journal, Vol.161. No.1. pp.14-24: 14.
  24. ibid
  25. At least in the case of Western militaries, examples such as the Soviet Army of WW2 and Israel’s Defence Force are notable exceptions.
  26. Examples of women perpetuating sexism are often weaponized against feminism.  However, it should not be assumed that feminists are exclusively women or vice versa.  Feminism seeks to counter social constructions that are deeply embedded within society so, of course, any member conditioned to that society may advocate them, even if certain aspects are paradoxical to the individual’s agency or benefit.
  27. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile. Random House: UK: 303
  28. Ibid: 432.
  29. Part of a talk by Caroline Criado Perez at the 2020 Army Servicewoman’s Network event.
  30. Summerfield & Peniston-Bird, 2003: 58.

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