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Long ReadMilitary History

Progressive Insanities: Women in Defence

Throughout the many examples of progressive activism in history, there have always been critics hoping to keep the status quo of their time. Yet, it is rarely acknowledged by such people that the status quo of any time will have normalised ideas considered progressive in a previous one.

What compounds this frustrating obliviousness is that those who reject modernising ideas (whether around gender, race, class, etc.) often recycle the same logic for why “insert issue” is problematic for reasons like lack of precedence, impacts on cohesion, or even just participation in general.

This article frames these logical fallacies around the three factors of ‘precedence’, ‘cohesion’, and ‘participation’ using the story of woman’s Army service from World War One to the present day. It concludes with an appeal to reason for all members of Defence to welcome discussions around gender in the Defence as progress in and of itself.

The Conversations Must Continue

Highlighting the value of historical context can address the insanities1 rooted in ideas that impact inclusion within Defence circles, no matter how minor any form of exclusion may manifest itself.

For instance, a recent piece on this forum by “Richard C.” titled Rethinking Women in Ground Close Combatdemonstrates much of what is regressive about views toward servicewomen. “Richard’s” logic is an example of what this author calls ‘regressive insanity’, meaning the double standard of any logic used to make a point about progressiveness which, in different contexts like race of class, would be deeply questionable.

In this instance, it means logic aimed at supressing a woman’s military agency based on notions that women are too ‘different’ to participate; would imbalance existing cohesions; and that there is a historical precedence for male authority over defence and security matters. Fortunately, there are two excellent rebuttals by Edward Carpenter and Beatrice Ormerod to balance things out.

So, while there are still those who perceive military service through a gendered lens, a continued emphasis is needed until the point where the notion that women can be soldiers is self-evident and not caveated by the term ‘female’.

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 period of activism that it seems so obvious how flawed (if not bizarre) previous debates were.

Actually, “debate” is a misleading term as it persuades people that there is fair representation on both sides discussing equality. These “debates” are often more akin to a battle of wills between a comfortable majority and a minority seeking change that will not even likely impact the majority in any way. Notions of fair debate only empower regressive thinking through an illusion of the natural legitimacy of any status quo.

Examples include desegregating racially structured military units, especially those within the United States military; lifting the ban(s) on LGBT service persons; officially recognising that servicewomen were actually part of the British Army (only in 1992); even something like placing non-graduate officers on the same terms and conditions as graduate officers only a decade ago. From today’s perspective, these were obviously good decisions but were nonetheless heated debates at the time.

No matter how wrong such examples of historical discrimination are perceived in a contemporary light, “debate” at the time was as strong between progressives and their critics as any contemporary equivalents are today.

The uncomfortable truth is that on so many occasions, large parts of society – often just by staying silent – have sought to maintain their status quo. But, as explained, these issues become social standards in later years so it would be unreasonable 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, 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 social issues provides a basis to appreciate why change is often good.

A brief history of how women have serviced the British Army is a great way of explaining this.

Precedence: World War to Cold War

Three major iterations of women-specific land forces existed before the 1992 absorption of women into the British Army. In order, these were: The Women’s (later Queen Mary’s) Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), established during the First World War; The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the late interwar period; and the Woman’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) between 1949 and 1992.2

The WAAC and the ATS were established for similar reasons: to free up fighting-age men from administrative roles to be “better” utilised on the front lines of both World Wars.3 While the WAAC came into being very late into the First World War (1917), the ATS was more forward-thinking in reaction to increasing tensions in Europe (1938).

On the face of it, both the WAAC and ATS could appear as progressive moves by the government at the time. However, their creations were more a product of the lessons learned up to and after 1917 more than from any moral compulsion to elevate women’s social positions by way of military status – a significant attribute of British culture at the time.

Rather, auxiliary roles were founded on an understanding that half the British population were, and would be, unable to resource the large human cost of total war

Rather, auxiliary roles were founded on an understanding that half the British population were, and would be, unable to resource the large human cost of total war.4 The pragmatism that founded the early services was evident in how they were structured: neither service 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 (flowers!) like roses or lilies.5 For the ATS, women were denied military status entirely because they were considered “civilians-in-uniform”.

It may appear academic to criticise these points if the realities of the war hit all the same–which they did. 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 and privileges women thought the ATS would provide them were denied. Actually, the experience was that women existed alongside, but never inside, the British Army.

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

The ATS was an organisation created to service areas vacated by men. In this sense, it was hugely successful. So much so that it survived the War as an organisation, unlike the WAAC. 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.

Cohesion: Perceptions of Women in the Arena

Though there was a lack of true military status, women in both wars nonetheless wore the uniform, and many British men perceived this as humiliating. Public concerns ranged from taking orders from a woman, which only occurred in very particular circumstances, to the degradation of masculine self-worth.6  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’’.7

For example, the ATS was often referred to as the ‘Auxiliary Tarts Service’.8 In other cases, this took the form of harassment like demeaning jobs to unwanted sexual advances. Worse still, some justified behaviour through assertions that women, having entered the masculine domain, were ‘asking for it’.9

Such was the extent of harassment in the female services (including RAF and Navy equivalents) that they suffered from extremely low morale which ultimately impacted female recruitment.

Such was the extent of harassment in the female services (including RAF and Navy equivalents) that they suffered from extremely low morale which ultimately impacted female recruitment. Perversely, this only perpetuated social ideas of the female incompatibility for war.10 Levels of recruitment and retention dropped to a point that it was perceived as a threat to the war effort.11

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, the 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 toward ATS personnel progressed in kind. In some cases, views towards participation amongst servicemen increased from thirty percent approval to seventy.12

Participation: Marching towards modernity

In 1949, Britain decided to follow the American system by creating its own Woman’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC). This was modelled in direct parallel to the (male) British Army and in succession to the ATS.13 However, although titled a corps, the WRAC was an independent entity with a separate rank structure (until eventual alignment in the 1950s). Women were seconded to British Army to perform administrative duties only.14

This was the state of Army affairs for Cold War Britain (with two notable exceptions15). For nearly five decades, men trained in the British Army to combat the USSR while being supported administratively by women who were refused the recognition of being part it. This was overtly demonstrated by their exclusion from training with weapons.16

It was only in the 1990s that Britain joined both services together 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.17

To be fair, male and female officers were training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst since the early 1980s.18 This almost certainly influenced 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. This was the case for all training establishments until only very recently and, unsurprisingly, to a critical reception.

It follows that from the very start of one’s military life, segregation at the deeply foundational stages of basic training has been a catalyst to believe in the self-evident nature of military separation between men and woman. As women are no longer tested to lower physical standards, and establishments are now en route to mixing their male and female recruits in training, participation will positively reshape attitudes moving forward.

The 1990s saw woman’s participation in the British Army increase at rapid speeds. Necessity once again played a role in an era of humanitarian intervention where the experiences in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Rwandan Genocide shaped attitudes to the use of force and the benefits of a gendered perspective. Certainly, Civil-military failures in these areas are argued to have come from institutional gender biases.

Recognising these, the United Nations passed Resolution 1325 in 2000 urging Peace Keeping members to incorporate gender perspectives into security efforts. On Yet, the British Army nonetheless maintained segregation between combat and non-combat roles for many years, even in the face of increasing social pressures and allied-nation precedent setting.

Still, the British Army in the 1990s came to understand that it was increasingly seen by society as a ‘chronically undermanned…institution closely associated with traditional values’.19  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’.20

As part of a wider Defence Review in 1998, a ‘manning report on fairer employment’ opened seventy percent of job roles to women, up from forty-eight percent.21  Combat roles, however, remained closed. This all changed in 2016 when UK Government announced the opening of all ground close combat roles to women, ‘without exemption’.22

Why, after so long did this final death knell to structural segregation transpire? A possible reason lies in the character of Britain’s modern wars and their blurred frontlines resulting in unprecedented levels of servicewomen casualties.

The Cost of Opportunity

Of course, due to historical institutionalised exclusion, the fighting soldiers of any Army have nearly always been men.23  It should come as no surprise that casualties are correlated in line with this. Still, in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.6% of fatalities were servicewomen.

Although these numbers may appear “small” (noting the remaining 98.4% were men), these are among the largest casualty rates for women in Western military history. Moreover, with the socio-political nature of contemporary military operations necessitating a greater female presence, these are unlikely to decrease in the future. As a result, the discussion in culture and society surrounding the female ‘role’ within war has been greatly amplified since the turn of the century.

Consequently, an ongoing cultural battle is still being waged around participation: 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 who died in the same events. 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 a serviceman’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. 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 Independenttitled ‘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 suggests Turney’s “right to fight” should be denied through an argument tantamount to victim-blaming. The alternative would be a complete removal of women from hostile environments based on what other people might do, disenfranchising half the population from modern service with blurred frontlines through no fault of their own. It is not argued that this was Sands’ journalistic angle per se, only that these biases are deeply rooted, regardless of gender and sex.24

Just like in the 1940s when women entered the same domain as men, the precedent of participation in and of itself generated necessary future trends. As with how just wearing the uniform was a powerful notion back then, the thread leading to complete institutional change in 2016 was pulled by those setting the most powerful precedent women in defence can make: participation in the ultimate sacrifice.


In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb states that proofs are best achieved by removing what is obviously wrong with a theory until the conclusion is made it is right: via negativa, ‘the focus on what something is not.’25  In other words, as 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. The argument is that, on a structural level, since the most overt examples of female-exclusion have been “resolved” through policy and structural change, the matter is closed.

However, even with a small amount of digging, there are still many areas that disprove this: numerous reports of sexual harassment; the lack of balance on a relative scale for senior leadership roles; ill-fitting uniforms; and the lack of female-driven data denying many women appropriate PPE.

And so, to bring this article full circle, Taleb’s subtractive epistemology, as he calls it, echoes the earlier appeal to maintain the emphasis on discussing women in defence. It is still too easy to “disconfirm” the idea that there are no longer issues in the Army.

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 for little other reason than maintaining a status quo.

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 despite roadblocks in the way. Remember that the catalyst for the post-1990s single-sex Army was a slow and steady decades-long cross-pollination in the post-war era.

It is important to highlight precedence; ‘the visible presence and functional role of servicewomen breached the all-male boundary that had hitherto contained the male military’.26  Before women could join the combat arms, they had to be able to wear a uniform in the first place and then at the very least be in the arena.

The persistent emphasis on any progressive subject is the proven route to push through each era to the next more progressive one. The Army’s ongoing success of rebalancing past injustices will only be stunted by a mistaken belief that some end state has been reached and the conversation ends.

One More Thing

A final warning: be wary of manipulators who attempt to abuse history by balancing today’s issues against absolutist ideas of total exclusion in the past. They do this to downplay more subtle, but no less important, problems of today – ones only visible because of the advances made around previous issues have allowed for these progressive gains. Just because the headway made between 1921 and 2021 looks, and is, significant, it does not mean that gender equality has been fully achieved.

History is not an excuse to halt progress by arguing how far we have come; it is the method to understand how to move forward by appreciating how far back something once was.

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. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Archer, E. (2017).  Women, Warfare and Representation: American Servicewomen in the Twentieth Century. Bloomsbury: UK: 27.
  5. War Office. (1917). Army Council Instruction No. 1069.
  6. Archer, 2017: 26.
  7. Holm, J. (1992). Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Presidio Press: USA: 52.
  8. 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).
  9. Ibid; Campbell, 1990: 114.
  10. Campbell, 1990: 116.
  11. Campbell, D. ‘Poststructuralism’, in Dunne, T. Kurki, M. Smith, S. (2013). International Relations Theories 3rd Edition. OUP: UK: 115; Archer, 2017: 39
  12. Treadwell, 1954: 448
  13. Bidwell, S. (1977). The Women’s Royal Army Corps. The Trinity Press: UK: 1.
  14. Ibid: 43.
  15. 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.
  16. Archer, 2017: 72.
  17. Dannatt, R. (2016). Boots on the Ground: Britain and her Army since 1945. Profile Books: UK: 7.
  18. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile. Random House: UK: 303
  19. Dannatt, 2016: 254.
  20. 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.
  21. Fitriani, Randolf G S Cooper & Ron Matthews. (2016). Women in Ground Close Combat, RUSI Journal, Vol.161. No.1. pp.14-24: 14
  22. ibid
  23. At least in the case of Western militaries, examples such as the Soviet Army of WW2 and Israel’s Defence Force are notable exceptions.
  24. Examples of women perpetuating sexism are often weaponised 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 conflict with an individual’s agency or benefit.
  25. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile. Random House: UK: 303, 432.
  26. Summerfield & Peniston-Bird, 2003: 58.

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