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Women in the military have a history that extends over 400 years into the past, throughout a large number of cultures and nations. Women have played many roles in the military, from ancient warrior women, to the women currently serving in conflicts, even though the vast majority of all combatants have been men in every culture.
Even though women serving in the military has often been controversial, relatively few women in history have fought alongside men. In the American Civil War, there were a few women who cross-dressed as men in order to fight. Fighting on the battle front as men was not the only way women involved themselves in war. Some women braved the battlefront as nurses and aides.
Despite various, though limited, 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. As increasing numbers of countries begin to expand the role of women in their militaries, the debate continues.
From the beginning of the 1970s, most Western armies began to admit women to serve active duty. Only some of them permit women to fill active combat roles, these are: New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United States.
Thousands of women served as nurses and in other support roles in the major armies.
The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was Russia. From the outset, female recruits either joined up in disguise or were tacitly accepted by their units. The most prominent were a contingent of front-line light cavalry in a Cossack regiment commanded by a female colonel. Others included the celebrated Maria Bochkareva, who was decorated three times and promoted to senior NCO rank, while the New York Times reported that a group of twelve schoolgirls from Moscow had joined up together disguised as young men. In 1917, the Provisional Government raised a number of "Women's Battalions", with Bochkareva given an officer's commission to command the first unit. They fought well, but failed to provide the propaganda value expected of them and were disbanded before the end of the year. In the later Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks employed some women infantry, while female soldiers are also recorded in the White Guard.
All the main nations used women in uniform. The great majority performed nursing, clerical or support roles. Over 500,000 had combat roles in anti-aircraft units in Britain and Germany, and front-line units in Russia.
In 1938, the British took the lead worldwide in establishing uniformed services for women, in addition to the small nurses units that had long been in operation. In late 1941, Britain began conscripting women, sending most into factory work and some into the military, especially the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), attached to the army. It began as a woman's auxiliary to the military in 1938, and in 1941 was granted military status (with 2/3 pay compared to men). Women had a well-publicized role in handling anti-aircraft guns against German planes and V-1 missiles. The daughter of Prime Minister Winston Churchill was there, and he gushed that any general who saved him 40,000 fighting men had gained the equivalent of a victory. By August, 1941, women were operating the fire-control instruments; they were never allowed to pull the trigger, as killing the enemy was considered to be "too masculine." By 1943, 56,000 women were in AA Command, most in units close to London where there was a risk of getting killed, but no risk of getting captured by the enemy. The first "kill" came in April 1942.
The Third Reich, contrary to popular belief, had similar roles for women. The SS-Helferinnen were regarded as part of the SS if they had undergone training at a Reichsschule SS but all other female workers were regarded as being contracted to the SS and chosen largely from concentration camps. Women also served in auxiliary units in the navy (Kriegshelferinnen), air force (Luftnachrichtenhelferinnen) and army (Nachrichtenhelferin).
In 1944-45 more than 500,000 women were volunteer uniformed auxiliaries in the German armed forces (Wehrmacht). About the same number served in civil aerial defense, 400,000 volunteered as nurses, and many more replaced drafted men in the wartime economy. In the Luftwaffe they served in combat roles helping to operate the anti—aircraft systems that shot down Allied bombers. By 1945, German women were holding 85% of the billets as clericals, accountants, interpreters, laboratory workers, and administrative workers, together with half of the clerical and junior administrative posts in high-level field headquarters.
Germany had a very large and well organized nursing service, with four main organizations, one for Catholics, one for Protestants, the secular DRK (Red Cross) and the "Brown Nurses," for committed Nazi women. Military nursing was primarily handled by the DRK, which came under partial Nazi control. Frontline medical services were provided by male medics and doctors. Red Cross nurses served widely within the military medical services, staffing the hospitals that perforce were close to the front lines and at risk of bombing attacks. Two dozen were awarded the iron Cross for heroism under fire. The brief historiography focuses on the dilemmas of Brown Nurses forced to look the other way while their incapacitated patients were murdered.
Hundreds of women auxiliaries (Aufseherin) served for the SS in the camps, the majority of which were at Ravensbrück. In Germany women also worked, and were told by Hitler to produce more pure Aryan children to fight in future wars.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo began training an initial 150 women as para-commandos in 1967 and many more were trained subsequently, over a period of several years at least. The women did receive complete jump training as well as weapons training although it is unclear to what extent they were actually integrated into the combat units of the Congo.
Israel is currently the only country in the world with a mandatory military service requirement for women. Mandatory conscription for single and married women without children began in 1948.
Initially all women conscripts served in the Women's Army Corps, serving as clerks, drivers, welfare workers, nurses, radio operators, flight controllers, ordnance personnel, and course instructors. Roles for women beyond technical and secretarial support started to open up in the late 1970s and early '80s.
In 2000, the Equality amendment to the Military Service law granted equal opportunities in the military to women found physically and personally suitable for a job. Women started to enter combat support and light combat roles in a few areas, including the Artillery Corps, infantry units and armored divisions. A few platoons named Carakal were formed for men and women to serve together in light infantry. Many women would also join the Border Police.
A 2008 study by Jennifer M. Silva of female students enrolled in the United States Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program found that the female cadets saw military training as an "opportunity to be strong, assertive and skillful" and saw such training "as an escape from some of the negative aspects of traditional femininity". The female cadets also believed that the ROTC program was "gender-blind" and "gender-neutral". The study claims that female cadets "were hyper-vigilant about their status as women performing tasks traditionally seen as men's work and often felt that they had to constantly prove they were capable".
Silva's study found gender playing a role in how cadets perceive leadership, quoting one female cadet: "in the Navy the joke is that a woman in the Navy is either a bitch, a slut or a lesbian, and none of them are good categories to fall into, and if you are stern with your people then you are a bitch, but if you're a guy and stern people are like, wow, I respect him for being a good leader".
Of the female cadets Silva interviewed, 84 percent said they did not want a military career as it would interfere with being able to get married and have children.
|The examples and perspective in this section deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2013)|
Some nations allow female soldiers to serve in certain combat arms positions. Others exclude them for various reasons.
Women have been involved in the U.S. military since 1775, but more in the civilian fields of nursing, laundering and mending clothing, and cooking. In 1917 Loretta Walsh became the first woman to enlist. But it was not until 1948 that a law was finally passed that permanently made women a permanent part of the military services. In 1976, the first group of women was admitted into a U.S military academy. According to statistics only 15.6 percent of the U.S. Army's 1.1 million soldiers are female. Women serve in 95 percent of all army occupations. In a one-year span, some 40,000 American military women were deployed during the Gulf War operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. But not one woman was able to take on any form of combat. In 1994 a policy prohibits women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A study conducted by Matthews et al. 2009 to examine the attitudes of West Point cadets, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets, and non-military-affiliated students from civilian colleges toward a variety of roles that women may serve in the military. The results showed that military cadets were less approving of women being assigned to certain military jobs than non-military students.
New opportunities are starting to open up for female soldiers. Almost twenty years later, in 2013, an order was passed that allowed women the same opportunities as men in the combat arms. Female U.S Army soldiers are being asked to partake in a new training course. The training course was designed by Combined Joint Task Force Paladin, which is specifically designed for Female Engagement Team members. The course will help female soldiers in training such as training in unexploded ordnance awareness, biometrics, forensics, evidence collection, tactical questioning, vehicle and personnel searches, instructions on how homemade explosive devices are made and how to recognize if a device is homemade. It is rumored that women may begin Army Ranger training by mid-2015. This change will open up hundreds of thousands front-line positions for women, some positions possibly even leading to elite commando jobs for women. This will end the policy of “no women in units that are tasked with direct combat”. Jobs opportunities will not be available all at once, but with each branch examining the new lift on the ban, jobs will be available as they see fit. The goal is 2016 for all assessments to be complete and have women fully integrated into all roles in the army. In light of recent job opportunities opening up to females, a new movement has been created. The women of the army call it “Sisters in Arms”. This group was developed in hopes of helping the many female soldiers find their individual voice in the army. The program has spread throughout the Army worldwide. On January 24, 2014, the US Army announced that 33,000 positions that were previously closed to women would integrate in the upcoming month of April, though it still has yet to be determined if and when women may join the US Army's Special Operations community.
Some people think having women in a combat unit would hurt unit cohesion, because men could not trust them. There are worries about romantic or sexual relationships developing, potentially inappropriate fraternization, or that a woman might get pregnant to avoid combat. Some people are not willing to accept the risk of women being captured and tortured and possibly sexually assaulted, which happened to then-Major Rhonda Cornum. Some argue that there is a shortage of male combat soldiers and that women should not be treated as second-class citizens in the military.
However, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Israeli soldiers reacted with uncontrollable protectiveness and aggression after seeing a woman wounded. Grossman also notes that Islamic militants rarely, if ever, surrender to female soldiers, lessening the IDF's ability to interrogate prisoners. On the other hand, Iraqi and Afghan civilians are often not intimidated by female soldiers. However, in such environments, having female soldiers serving in a combat unit does have the advantage of allowing for searches on female civilians. Children and women are more likely to talk to female soldiers than to male soldiers.
A more insidious issue is the rape of women in the military by their own. Some have alleged that a woman in the military is three times more likely than a woman in the general population to be raped, and in Iraq are more likely to be attacked by one of their own than an insurgent. There is currently a lawsuit in the US military in which the plaintiffs claim to have been subjected to sexual assaults in the military. A documentary called The Invisible War has been made on this lawsuit and topic.
In 1985, the Royal Norwegian Navy became the first  navy in the world to permit female personnel to serve in submarines, followed by the appointment of a female submarine captain in 1995. The Danish Navy allowed women on submarines in 1988, the Swedish Navy in 1989, followed by the Royal Australian Navy in 1998, Canada in 2000, and Spain; all operators of conventional submarines.
Social obstacles 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. However, some countries have women serving on small diesel-electric submarines where they sometimes hot bunk with men.
Recent US Navy policy allowed 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.
In October 2009, the U. S. Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus announced that he and the Chief of Naval Operations were moving aggressively to change the policy. Reasons included the fact that larger SSGN and SSBN submarines now in the Fleet had more available space and could accommodate female Officers with little or no modification. Also, the availability of qualified female candidates with the desire to serve in this capacity was cited. It was noted that women now represented 15% of the Active Duty Navy  and that women today earn about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. A policy change was deemed to serve the aspirations of women, the mission of the Navy and the strength of its submarine force.
In February 2010, the Secretary of Defense approved the proposed policy and signed letters formally notifying Congress of the intended change. After receiving no objection, the Department of the Navy officially announced on April 29, 2010, that it had authorized women to serve onboard submarines.
The first group of U.S. female submariners completed nuclear power school and officially reported on board two ballistic and two guided missile submarines in November 2011.
In 2012, it was announced that 2013 will be the first year women will serve on U.S. attack submarines.
On June 22, 2012, a Sailor assigned to USS Ohio (SSGN 726) became the first female supply officer to qualify in U.S. submarines. Lt. Britta Christianson of Ohio's Gold Crew received her Submarine Supply Corps "dolphins" from the Gold Crew Commanding Officer Capt. Rodney Mills during a brief ceremony at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF).
On December 5, 2012, three Sailors assigned to USS Maine (SSBN 741) and USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) became the first female unrestricted line officers to qualify in U.S. submarines. Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque, a native of Fort Collins, Colo., assigned to the Gold Crew of Wyoming, and Lt. j.g. Amber Cowan and Lt. j.g. Jennifer Noonan of Maine's Blue Crew received their submarine "dolphins" during separate ceremonies at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., and Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash.
In 2013, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that the first women to join Virginia-class attack subs had been chosen: They were newly commissioned female officers scheduled to report to their subs in fiscal year 2015.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century, there have been a significant representations of "women warriors" in popular culture, occasionally including women in the military, such as the films G. I. Jane and Down Periscope.
In 2007, author Kirsten Holmstedt released Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq. The book presents twelve stories of American women on the frontlines including America's first female pilot to be shot down and survive, the U.S. military's first black female combat pilot, a 21-year-old turret gunner defending a convoy, two military policewomen in a firefight and a nurse struggling to save lives, including her own. Her second book, The Girls Come Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from Iraq details the lives of women who served in combat after they come home.
A television movie about Margarethe Cammermeyer called Serving in Silence, was made in 1995, with Glenn Close starring as Cammermeyer. Cammermeyer, a retired colonel in the Washington National Guard, disclosed in 1989 that she was a lesbian. The movie's content was largely taken from Cammermeyer's autobiography of the same name.
A 2008 documentary entitled Lioness told the story of the first United States servicewomen in combat.
In 2009, author/historian Maureen Duffus released a book entitled Battlefront Nurses in WW I chronicling the story of four years in the lives of two nursing sisters who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Esquimalt, British Columbia, in the summer of 1915. Both served overseas in England, Salonika and France as lieutenants with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Sources were the diary of Nursing Sister Elsie Collis, a memoir by Nursing Sister Ethel Morrison and their photograph albums.
A 2011 documentary entitled "No Job for a Woman": The Women Who Fought to Report WWII chronicles the work and lives of women war correspondents on the front lines of war reporting from World War II to the Vietnam War and today, focusing specifically on Martha Gellhorn, Dickey Chapelle, and Ruth Cowan.
A notable tendency of science fiction since the 1940s is to place women in dominant military roles. These are often command positions, in some cases for the express purpose of having a woman in command (as was the case for Captain Kathryn Janeway, where the ship having a female captain was used as a selling point). In some cases, this is accompanied by a complete desegregation of the sexes, such as in Starship Troopers (film), where no one showed any compunctions about undressing, showering, etc. in front of the other gender.
In numerous games, such as Starcraft, women appear as fierce warriors.
Treadwell, Mattie E. (1954). United States Army in World War II: Special Studies: The Women's Army Corps. the standard history; part of the Army "Green series"
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