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Summary Article: Military, Women in the
From The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World

Women have served a vital role in just about every major battle and in every major military throughout history, but their official participation has been limited in most countries throughout time. Women's participation often comes in association with the military, in either civilian roles or in auxiliary corps, rather than as direct participants. Women's current position in most major world militaries is still quite precarious. Many countries are just now beginning to allow women's service, since many militaries still rely on the conscription of men to fill their ranks. Those women who do serve in militaries also face many barriers both occupationally and socially.

The most progressive inclusion of women in a major world military is the Israeli military, where women are active service members, and are even permitted in combat. Israel is also the only major military that conscripts women. The U.S. military, while also quite progressive in its acceptance and inclusion of women in its formal military service, still disallows women in certain combat positions, and has yet to include women in any form of the draft. Many European nations have a fluctuating history with women, often allowing them to serve in connection with the military during times of war. Many of these countries have only more recently begun to allow women into their militaries in a formal capacity during peacetime, and most of these roles are still restricted. This entry will focus on women's participation in formal state militaries, rather than in guerrilla, militia, or other nonsanctioned militaries. The article does not address all world militaries, but focuses on some of those that allow women to serve, with an emphasis on the Israeli and U.S. militaries, both of which have high percentages of women who serve and a higher level of gender integration than other world militaries.

Israeli Military

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was established at the same time as the State of Israel was founded in 1948, after World War II. The role of the IDF has changed greatly over the years, from guerrilla warfare, to more traditional warfare, to urban warfare and counter terrorism. Women have been active members of the IDF since its inception, though at varying rates and in shifting occupations over time.

There are three different service routes within the IDF: Regular Service, which constitutes years of conscription that all Israeli citizens must serve; Permanent Service, which is a longer-term contractual agreement to serve in the military; and Reserve Service, where citizens are called up to active duty after the completion of their Regular Service.

Participation in the Regular Service is mandatory for all non-Arab Israeli citizens over the age of 18. Men are required to serve three years, while women are required to serve two. While there are some exceptions made, based on physical or psychological injury or on religious grounds, women may also avoid service based on marital status. A third of female conscripts are exempt from military service based on religious or marital grounds, which is nearly twice the exemption made for male conscripts.

Permanent Service commences after tenure in the regular service, and is open to any and all who wish to have a military career. While fewer women than men join the military on a permanent basis, as of 2002 women make up 33 percent of lower-rank officers, 21 percent of captains and majors, and 3 percent of the most senior ranks.

While nominally Reserve Service can call up anyone who participated in Regular Service, in practice, mainly men are called up. The call to Reserve Service has soldiers participating in training and activities up to one month annually in order to keep soldiers’ training up to date. Reserve soldiers may also be called to active duty in times of imminent crisis. For women, those in combat roles get called for active reserve more often than those who served in noncombat roles, and many only for a few years following their active service. Women also have more opportunities for exemption based on marital status or pregnancy and/or parenthood.

Women's opportunities to serve in combat and combat related fields have changed greatly over time, but since 2005, over 80 percent of military occupational specialties (MOSs) are open to Israeli women, including navy shipboard service, piloting fighter jets, and even artillery positions. All women's combat service is voluntary.

In 2001, the IDF eliminated its Women's Corps command as a means to help integrate women into regular service, but the IDF did keep an “adviser for women's affairs.” Female soldiers now fall under the authority of individual units based on jobs, and not on gender.

U.S. Military

Women's current participation in the U.S. military is vital to the survival of the institution, but in spite of this, their place within the organization is rather precarious. The changing landscape of U.S. social and political ideology has forced the military to adjust its institutional structure to allow for the presence and participation of women. These changes have helped to increase the number of women participating and the types of roles they are allowed to hold, without equally influencing changes in the masculine culture of the institution.

U.S. female Airmen and Soldiers stand in an all-women formation as part of a 380th Air Expeditionary Wing retreat ceremony honoring Women's History Month, March 19, 2010, at an undisclosed location in southwest Asia.

In order to understand women's current situation in the military, one must first understand the long history of women's participation. Women's history with the institution has been one of conflict and inconsistency. The ambivalent relationship the military has historically had with women also helps explain many of the current social, cultural, and occupational challenges female soldiers still face today.

Before 1941, the U.S. military was literally an exclusively male profession. Beginning in 1941, women began their first certified involvement with the military. Women had previously served as nurses and aids to soldiers, but the Woman's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) marked the first instance when women were allowed to have an occupation directly associated with the military. The initial reasoning for wanting a women's corps was to fill clerical position to free up men who currently filled those positions, and utilize them in other stations. The bill explicitly stated that the purpose for the WAAC was meant for service with the Army, not “in” the Army. The distinction was that these women were only aiding the military men in their pursuits, not joining them in the battle. They were not considered a direct branch of the military, as is evident in their title, Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. Because of their secondary, or auxiliary, status, women were not entitled to the same pay, benefits, or ranks as their male counterparts. Soon after the commencement of the WAAC, other branches of the military, such as the Navy and Marines, began permitting women to join as integrated members, though in separate women's corps. This in turn lowered the desirability for women to hold auxiliary positions in the Army. Because of this, the enlistment rate dropped drastically, and subsequently U.S. Congress signed a bill in 1943 establishing the Women's Army Corps (WAC), where women were given full military status. The Army was later the first branch to make women a part of their regular, integrated service.

Women within military service included the WACs, the WAVES (women accepted for volunteer emergency service in the Navy), the SPARs (Coast Guard), and the WAF (Women's Air Force). These women served in a wide variety of military positions, ranging from drivers to photographers to pilots to weather forecasters. More than 150,000 women served during World War II-they served their country both domestically and abroad, and were honored with a number of medals and citations. The important services these women provided, no matter how good a job they did, did not lessen their social burden nor increase their status or opportunities within the military. Every achievement a woman made was met with direct opposition and required a fight on some level.

After World War II, Congress felt pressure to install the various women's corps (which were originally only a wartime addition) as a full-time part of the U.S. military. They accomplished this with the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948. The act allowed women full-time participation in the military, instead of just wartime, but did not yet integrate women with the men. Women continued to serve in every branch of the military throughout the United States and at bases around the world.

It was not until 1967 that the military finally lifted promotion restrictions, allowing women to rise to the positions of general and commander. At this time, entrance into previously banned areas of service made weapons training and defense readiness a mandatory part of women's training. With more opportunity for upward mobility and the allowance of women into combat support positions, the size of the all-volunteer corps nearly tripled. From 1973 to 1978, a time when men's participation in the military dropped drastically after the disbandment of the draft and the installment of an All-Volunteer Force, women's participation boomed. This drastic increase in women's participation and the drastic decrease in men's participation during this time lead to a decision uniting the two forces into one integrated Army: the Navy, Air Force, and eventually even the Marines later followed suit.

Through 1981, the government placed a ceiling on the number of women allowed in the various branches of the military: the Army had the largest allotment of women, with a cap at 65,000. The government explained the ceiling by stating that it gave them the opportunity to better study the issue of women in combat. This ceiling prevented numbers of highly qualified women from enlisting or gaining a commission. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there were a number of changes to the MOSs open to women. In 1994, the government lifted almost all restrictions on women's combat assistance, and women were only restricted from occupations that would put them directly in ground combat, or into positions that dealt directly with those units.

This opened up nearly 90 percent of career fields to women. These standards remained in place through the rest of the century and into the late-20th-and early-21st-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, warfare has changed significantly. While women remain restricted from direct combat, they continue to fight, and even die, in combat-related fields. Although there have been discussions of once again changing the restrictions on women's participation in combat, the regulations have not significantly changed since the mid-1990s.

Over 30 years after the initial integration of women into the general U.S. military branches, women now make up around 15 percent of today's total department of defense enlisted and officer positions. This is a significant increase over the not quite 2 percent that women constituted in the 1950s and through the early 1970s.

European/NATO Militaries

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is a military alliance of democratic states in Europe and North America, currently has 28 member states. As of the turn of the 21st century, 16 member nations of NATO have women serving in their armed forces. Two of the exceptions are Iceland, which has no armed forces, and Luxembourg, where no women serve. In the United States, as outlined above, women make up over 15 percent of the armed forces. Canada has the second highest representation of women at just over 10 percent of regular service and almost 20 percent of the reserve forces. In Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (UK), women make up between 7 and 8 percent of the armed forces.

Women comprise about 5 percent of the armed forces in Denmark, Portugal, and Norway, while in Greece and Spain, the rates are between 2 and 4 percent. Turkey currently only allows women officers, not as enlisted members of its armed forces; and in Italy, recruitment of women only began in 1999, so although the number of women who serve is still fairly low, there is public support for women's participation.

Until the 21st century, Germany limited women's participation in the armed forces to positions in the medical service or in military bands. While women made up nearly a quarter of medical service positions, they were not allowed to serve in other roles within the military until 2000. In 2000, the European High Counsel ruled that it was against European law to disallow women's service in most branches of the military. The court case on this issue was based on a suit by a German woman, and thus Germany changed its policies: many other European nations followed suit.

Many European nations still rely on men's conscription for a significant portion of their armed forces. There has never been a draft for women in any NATO country. While the issue of women's service in the military has only come to the attention of many member states in the past decade, many of the nations are currently actively engaged in recruiting women, as well as increasing women soldiers’ quality of life, in order to increase retention rates. Most European nations still limit women's participation to noncombat roles.

South American Militaries

Military dictatorships have long been central to Latin American governmental control. Many South America nations have a tradition of machismo and government dictatorships. But in recent years, women have been appointed to start giving direction on matters of defense. Since the turn of the century, five South American countries have named women to head their defense ministries for the first time: Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.

The appointment of women to these positions highlights women's recent progress in the region. While many Latin American militaries remain exclusively male in their composition, the installment of women in key leadership positions denotes a changing relationship between the government and militaries, as well as the changing culture. The first appointment of a woman as a military leader came in 2002. Chile had a female defense minister who later became president, at which time she appointed another woman as defense minister. In Argentina and Uruguay, where military rule was also prevalent through the late 20th century, two women (both former human rights lawyers) are running the defense ministries. In all three countries, there is a changing relationship between government and military, with an increased emphasis on human rights, and a decreased reliance on military strength and power.

Asian Militaries

In China, military service is compulsory for all men at the age of 18, but because of the high rate of volunteers, China has not yet had to enforce the draft. Women in China are allowed to serve in medical, veterinary, and other technical positions, but are still disallowed from combat and combat-related positions.

Women are also allowed to serve in the Indian, Pakistani, and the North and South Korean militaries. In most of these countries, as in most parts of the world, women's roles are limited to medical, educational, or other noncombat-related fields considered more acceptable for women's participation.

Current Issues for Women in the Military

Many women who occupy positions in militaries around the world are still somewhat limited in their field choices and face a “glass ceiling.” There are very few women in the highest ranks of any world military. Some scholars suggest the ceilings placed on women's participation in countries like the United States, or the late start for women in European militaries, can in part explain the dearth of higher ranked women. Since it takes so long to get from the lower to the higher ranks, usually 15 to 20 years, and since fewer women populated the military in the past 15 to 30 years, it would make sense that fewer occupy the higher positions today. This, however, is only part of the problem.

Not only are women limited in numbers within their fields, they are also limited as to which fields that they can fill. Many militaries still limit the occupations they allow women to occupy. For the most part, women are excluded from all combat and some combat-related fields. Traditional outlooks on women assume that they do not want to be directly involved in combat, nor are they capable of such occupations. Many people believe that men are more physically and emotionally suited for combat roles. Opinions about women's participation in combat fields vary cross-culturally, and have changed over time, but worldwide, there is still much contention on the issue. These views are not necessarily supported by fact or reality. Whether or not women want to be in combat roles, many are currently still exposed to combat and all of its associated terrors, without the associated benefits.

Critics of the combat restrictions in place in many countries assert that with modern warfare, there is little distinction between combatant and noncombatant soldiers-both types are killed in battle without bias-and therefore, it is absurd to believe that the military can protect women by restricting them from combat positions. This lack of distinction on the part of the “enemy” and technology is especially apparent in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where many women have died or have been captured while serving in positions listed as noncombatant.

Other than restrictions in job opportunities and unequal representation in the higher ranks, women also suffer from social restrictions. During women's participation in World War II, male soldiers spread a series of slanderous rumors about the women serving in the military, depicting them as prostitutes to the soldiers, as women of loose morals and poor character, and as women who were prone to be pregnant out of wedlock. These rumors lowered the moral of the women, and in some instances caused serious emotional distress. At a time when slandering a woman's reputation was as harmful and dangerous to her as the acts described, this was a very dangerous and mildly successful tactic in discouraging women from joining the military. When investigated, these reports were found not only to be fallacious, but more often than not to be the result of disgruntled male soldiers who were uncomfortable letting women into their sacred space.

Military historians believe that former notions of military women as prostitutes continue to vex modern military women. Some efforts to counteract these prejudices led militaries to instate conduct and appearance codes for women who joined. These rules included restricting female soldiers interactions with their male counterparts. As time has progressed, so too have the social restrictions placed on women. Women are no longer as restricted in their socialization with male colleagues, but an unhealthy social environment remains where military women live and work. Women in early-21st-century militaries have to deal with sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and cruel double standards. Beginning in World War I, military psychiatrists said that in order for women to achieve full participation in the military, men would have to rise above their prejudices about women and their roles. Almost 100 years after this initial observation and recommendation for change, women still serve beside men who are taught and encouraged to see their female counterparts not as peers, but rather as inferior or otherwise unsuited for military service.

Facing Sexual Harassment and Assault

One form of unhealthy social environment in the military is the abundance of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination has been prevalent in the military since long before women were even members, and the tradition has held through to the modern military. Most modern militaries have policies prohibiting sexual harassment, and even provide punishment for offenders. Militaries give special instruction during training and throughout a soldier's years of service to discourage such behavior, but even the most strenuous, zero-tolerance policies hardly deter the behavior and are at most mildly effective. Sexual harassment continues to be a problem for most modern militaries, as it is all over the occupational world.

Part of the problem of sexual harassment in the military is that people are often confined to very small areas with large numbers of people. People in the military not only work but frequently live in very close quarters, possibly breeding a hostile and dangerous environment conducive to sexual harassment. Some academics also hypothesize that sexual harassment is a way in which men express their hostility toward women for invading a once all-male domain. Studies of sexual harassment in the military were slow to occur, and changes made in response to findings have been implemented at an even slower pace. Although the colloquial definition of sexual harassment varies between female officers and enlisted women, all the military women in a number of studies agreed that sexual harassment does in fact occur.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn't stop at sexual harassment: many world militaries also have a much higher sexual assault rate than the civilian world. These assaults range from inappropriate touching to rape. Many assaults go unreported, due to problems with the process of reporting them, as well as women's fears of retaliation, retribution, or sanction. In some military situations, women experience retaliation for both reporting and testifying, and since militaries are such group-minded arenas, woman are often hard pressed to find men, or other women for that matter, who will testify against the perpetrators of the offenses. There are a number of retaliations used when women bring suit against their aggressors: they are given bad evaluations, put under criminal investigation themselves, further sexually and physically assaulted, or generally made to “pay” for their “disobedience.” Even when a woman's claims are heard and their perpetrators punished, critics complain that the punishments are often not nearly harsh enough, often consisting of nothing more than marching rounds or janitorial duties. All in all, militaries are socially and sexually dangerous places for women, making it difficult for them to immerse themselves in the culture, and perhaps discouraging other women from joining.

Gender Gaps

In spite of recent efforts on the part of governments to integrate or equalize their militaries, most world militaries still have a very distinct gender gap. As previously mentioned, qualifications for women differ from those of men, job and promotion opportunities vary greatly, and women face social roadblocks in advancing in their careers.

For years, world militaries have overlooked, ignored, or questioned the potential and abilities of women without considering how their perspectives and social attributes might benefit the military. According to military statistics, women in the military display overall better behavior, and therefore lose less time to disciplinary restrictions. They are also less likely to over indulge on alcohol or use and abuse drugs during military service. Women, on average, enter the military more educated than men, making them more suitable for certain occupations. Some studies show that the presence of women influences male soldiers, improving their behavior in some areas. Women, in effect, are a civilizing agent in the military.

Future Aspirations

In all countries, except for Israel, women are and always have been involved in military service on a volunteer basis. In countries where there is no male conscription, female participation has drastically increased the overall number of soldiers. In countries with male conscription and where some men seek to avoid service, many women still have a desire to serve. Instead of celebrating the fact that women are eager to serve, there is a great deal of resistance and an inordinate amount of debate surrounding women's participation. With a host of logically circular critiques, many critics of women in the military claim both that women would not have to be in the military if things were going well, and that women are the reason things are not going well in the military. Needless to say, the road to full integration, not only occupationally but also socially, still has not occurred for women in military service.

Most of the restrictions placed on women's service and the discomfort with women's participation in militaries have to do with cultural standards related to gender. While there are significant cultural differences between countries, one fairly consistent concept is the idea of gender segregation. Men are often associated with a kind of masculinity that lends its self to violence and aggression, while women are relegated to the realm of nurturing. Although there are mythological stories of women's participation in war, such as the myth of the Amazons, for the most part, militaries have been the domain of men and an arena for exhibiting masculinity. Modern militaries still struggle with issues of gender stereotypes that suggest that women make life (give birth), while men take life (fight in wars). In spite of the ever-changing dynamics of modern militaries, some of these traditional ideas of gender remain, affecting women's experience and opportunities with and in the military. Women's participation in military service often comes out of necessity, rather than changing cultural ideologies. But in order for women to ever be fully integrated members of military service, not only the rules, but also the culture of the military must change.

See Also:

Glass Ceiling, Lesbians in the Military, Military Leadership, Women in, Military Stationed in Muslim Countries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Female Military, Sexual Harassment.

Further Readings
  • Addis, E., Russo, V., and Sebesta, L. Women Soldiers: Images and Realities. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
  • D'Amico, F. and Weinstein, L. Gender Camouflage: Women and the U.S. Military. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • Friedl, V Women in the United States Military, 1901-1995: A Research Guide and Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Holm, J Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992.
  • Rogan, H Mixed Company: Women in the Modern Army. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1981.
  • Sherrow, V Women and the Military: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996.
  • Furia, Stacie R.
    © SAGE Publications, Inc

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