Women in the Military Part 1: History
Until recent history, women in the army—any army—would have been an anomaly. Sure there’s the ballad of Mulan, which Disney made a fine movie out of (one of my favorites!) and everyone knows about Joan of Arc. But there was nothing common or normal about a woman fighting in battle. Whenever there were women on the battlefield it was generally out of desperation, as during the U.S. Civil War when women began to serve as battlefield hospital nurses because they were so desperately needed. Beloved author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, was one of the many women who stepped up to do this very difficult job during a very bloody war.
Though women were not permitted to join militaries for the majority of history, exceptions have often been made under duress. In WWI, women were permitted to join as nurses and “support staff.” WWII put many nations in even more desperate need than they had ever been before: In the U.S. “More than 400,000 women serve[d] at home and abroad as mechanics, ambulance drives, pilots, administrators, nurses, and in other non-combat roles.”
In fact, it could be argued that WWII did much to change the relationship of women and the military. The dire circumstances forced women to be allowed into environments and jobs that they may never have otherwise encountered. It was shortly after the war—in 1948—that women in the U.S. were officially allowed to become a permanent part of the military. In 1967, the legal cap on the number of women allowed to serve was removed. Since then, roles, opportunities, and training have expanded greatly.
Very few countries in the world have ever included women in a military draft. Israel was the first country to conscript women. Women in Israel have more exemption prospects, but a third of the Israeli military is female, and universal conscription remains. Norway just implemented a policy this year “becoming the first European and first NATO country to make military service compulsory for both genders.” There are a very small handful of other countries that conscript women, including North Korea, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. Of the few, most are war-torn countries, countries that are under great threat or are perceived to be.
The role of women in the military has changed dramatically over the latter half of the 20th century and continues to change, now 13 years into the 21st century. Where women were once the exception, they now make up nearly 15% of the U.S. military, just under 14% of the Australian armed services, as well as approximately 15% of Canadian and French militaries. Germany and the UK both have under 10% women in their armed services.
While these numbers may seem low compared to, say, the statistics on women’s University attendance, they are nothing to scoff at considering how recently women were integrated into the armed forces.
What does that integration look like? What are the unique experiences and challenges of women in the military?
Sources and useful links about women in the military:
© Women’s Empowerment Initiative. All Rights Reserved.