Women in combat

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Women in combat are female military personnel assigned to combat positions. This article covers the situation in major countries, provides a historical perspective, and reviews the main arguments made for and against women in combat.


Main article: Women in the military

For most of human history, people serving in combat were overwhelming male. From time to time in world history individual women have served in combat roles disguised as men or in leadership roles as queens (such as Queen Boudica, who led the Britons against Rome; Joan of Arc is the famous example).[1] In the First World War Russia used one all-female combat unit. In the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of British and German women served in combat roles in anti-aircraft units, where they shot down thousands of enemy fliers. They were widely accepted because they were not at risk of capture.[2] In the Soviet Union, their large-scale use of women near the front as medical staff and political officers. The Soviets also set up all-female sniper units and combat fighter planes.[3][4] A few women also played combat roles in resistance movements in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.[5] After 1945 all these combat roles were ended in all armies, and the experiences were forgotten.[6]

Specific countries[edit]


The Australian military plans to open up combat jobs to women in January 2016.[7]


In 1989, a tribunal appointed under the Canadian Human Rights Act ordered full integration of women in the Canadian Armed Forces "with all due speed", at least within the next ten years. Submarines remained closed to women, until three years later.[8]


The 2000 Equality amendment to the Military Service law states that "The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men."[9] As of now,[when?] 88% to 92% of all roles in the IDF are open to female candidates, while women can be found in 69% of all positions.[10][11]

New Zealand[edit]

New Zealand has no restrictions on roles for women in its defence force. They are able to serve in the Special Air Service, infantry, armour and artillery. This came into effect in 2001 by subordinate legislation. Though, no woman has ever made it into the Special Air Service.


In 1985, Norway became the first country to allow women to serve on its submarines. The first female commander of a Norwegian submarine was Solveig Krey in 1995.[12][13]

Sri Lanka[edit]

Female personnel of all three services play an active part in ongoing operations. However, there are certain limitations in 'direct combat' duties such as special forces,pilot branch, naval fast attack squadrons.


Women can serve in all positions in the Swedish military since 1989. Currently, about 5.5% of all officers are women.[14]


When Turkish history is examined, it is apparent that Turkish women have voluntarily taken tasks in the defence of their country, showing the same power and courage as men. Nene Hatun, whose monument has been erected in the city of Erzurum (Eastern Turkey) because of her gallant bravery during the Ottoman-Russian War, constitutes a very good example of this fact. Besides providing nursery services, women also took main roles in combat in WWI.[15] Furthermore, the Independence War has taken its place in history with the unsurpassed heroism of Turkish women.[16] Sabiha Gökçen was the first female combat pilot in the world, as well as the first Turkish female aviator. She was one of the eight adoptive children of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Throughout her career in the Turkish Air Force, Gökçen flew 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8,000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions. She was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996.[17]

Women personnel are being employed as officers in the Turkish Armed Forces today. The women officers serve together with the men under the same respective chains of command. The personnel policy regarding women in the Turkish Armed Forces is based on the principle of "needing qualified women officers in suitable branches and ranks" to keep pace with technological advancements in the 21st century. Women civilian personnel have been assigned to the headquarters staff, technical fields, and social services without sexual discrimination. Women officers serve in all branches except armor, infantry, and submarines. Assignments, promotions and training are considered on an equal basis with no gender bias.[16]

As of the year 2005, the number of the female officers and NCOs in the Turkish Armed Forces is 1245.[18]

United States[edit]

In WWI and WWII women served in numerous roles such as the Army Nurse Corps, and the Women's Army Corps (WAC). They carried out various roles such as clerical work, mechanical work, photo analysis, and sheet metal working; in some cases they were utilized as test pilots for fighter planes as WASPS. In 1979 enlistment qualifications became the same for men and women. While women were able to enlist, they were prohibited from direct combat roles or assignments. In 1994 the Department of Defense officially banned women from serving in combat, but, on January 24, 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military's ban on women serving in combat.[19] Implementation of these rules is ongoing. There is some speculation that this could lead to women having to register with the Selective Service System.[20]

The United States Marine Corps is still in its infancy stages of allowing women into combat positions. Army Ranger Battalions and Navy SEAL units plan to integrate women by 2015 and 2016, respectively. On November 21, 2013, the first three women to ever complete the United States Marine Corps’ combat training course graduated from the United States Marine Corps School of Infantry in Camp Geiger, North Carolina.[21][22][23] However, these three female graduates will still not be allowed to serve in infantry units until further studies can demonstrate they are physically capable of doing so.[23] 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,[24]

United Kingdom[edit]

In 2014, the British defence secretary Michael Fallon said that he hoped the ban on women serving in frontline infantry roles would be lifted ‘in the next year or so’.[25][26]


The following is a list of issues at the center of the debate whether or not gender integration lends to combat effectiveness. The debate centers more on the physical characteristics of individual women rather than the question of their overall contributions to teams and units. A detailed study was also done by Global Policy on the ongoing debate, which categorizes the following criticisms.[27]

Physical concerns[edit]

In civil employment, the average female physical performance is limited to two thirds of the physical performance of men by regulations.[28][29][30] The different physical gender-performance is standardized in ISO 11228 (Ergonomics - Manual handling) and EN 1005 (Safety of machinery - Human physical performance).

The Center for Military Readiness, an organization that seeks to limit women's participation in the military, stated that “Female soldiers [are], on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50% less upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance”.[31]

The female skeletal system is less dense, and more prone to breakages.[32][33] There is also a concern that, in aviation, the female body is not as adept at handling the increased g-forces experienced by combat pilots. However, there is evidence that the male body is less able to handle the g-forces than the female body with regard to black outs: women are less likely to black out due to shorter blood vessel routes in the neck.[34] Furthermore, health issues regarding women are argued as the reason that some submarine services avoid accepting women, although mixed-gender accommodations in a small space is also an issue, as is explained in more depth below.[31]

The Austrian Armed Forces, significantly lower physical performance requirements for entrance test and subsequent tests apply to female soldiers fitness for service.[35][36] The Swiss Armed Forces abolished this advantage for female soldiers in 2007.[37]

The United States Marine Corps is implenting the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) to test the physical abilities of their female officer candidates for those who apply for the combat positions.[38]

Psychological concerns[edit]

The purported disruption of a combat unit's esprit de corps is cited as another reason for women to be banned from front-line combat situations.[39][40][41]

There is a secondary concern that romantic relationships between men and women on the front lines could disrupt a unit's fighting capability and a fear that a high number of women would deliberately become pregnant in order to escape combat duties.[42][43]

In the British Army, which continues to bar women from serving in infantry-roled units, all recruits joining to fill infantry vacancies partake in a separate training program called the Combat Infantryman's Course.

In the American armed forces, the 1994 rules forbidding female involvement in combat units of brigade size or smaller are being bent. Colonel Cheri Provancha, stationed in Iraq, argues that: "This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it."[44]

A third argument against the inclusion of women in combat units is that placing women in combat where they are at risk of being captured and tortured and possibly sexually assaulted is unacceptable.[43] Rhonda Cornum, then a major and flight surgeon, and now a Brigadier General and Command Surgeon for United States Army Forces Command, was an Iraqi POW in 1991. At the time, she was asked not to mention that she had been molested while in captivity.[45] Cornum subsequently disclosed the attack, but said "A lot of people make a big deal about getting molested," she noted later, adding: "But in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list".

Finally, there is the argument that by not incorporating women into combat, the American government is failing to tap into another source of soldiers for military combat operations. This argument claims that the government is creating a military that treats women as second-class citizens and not equals of men.[46] Other observers state that without women, the military would have numerous manpower shortfalls they would not be able to fill.[47]

Tactical concerns[edit]

In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman briefly mentions that female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces have been officially prohibited from serving in close combat military operations since 1948. The reason for removing female soldiers from the front lines was due less to the performance of female soldiers, and more due to the behavior of the male infantrymen after witnessing a woman wounded. The IDF saw a complete loss of control over soldiers who apparently experienced an uncontrollable, protective, instinctual aggression, severely degrading the unit's combat effectiveness.

However, in 2001, subsequent to the publication of Grossman's book, women did begin serving in IDF combat units on an experimental basis. There is now a male-female infantry battalion, the Caracal Battalion.

Grossman also notes that Islamic militants rarely, if ever, surrender to female soldiers. In modern warfare where intelligence is perhaps more important than enemy casualties, every factor reducing combatants' willingness to fight is considered. Similarly, Iraqi and Afghan civilians are often not intimidated by female soldiers. However, in such environments, having female soldiers serving alongside a combat unit may have some advantages.

A notable example of this are female US military personnel attached to combat units specifically for the purpose of performing culturally sensitive searches. One example of this type of unit is the USMC Lioness program, which used female Marines to search females [48] at checkpoints both on the Iraq-Syrian border [49] and inside urban areas.[50] Another example is the US Army Cultural Support Teams (CSTs). These units, designed to accompany special operations teams and work alongside them in deployed environments, are intended to provide access to the information and needs of local community women in communities where contact between male soldiers and civilian women is culturally fraught.[51]

There is also evidence showing women in both Iraq and Afghanistan have considerable success in acquiring intelligences from children and women. In these cases the US military adheres to local customs for the purposes of counterinsurgency, whereby males are not permitted to talk to women who are not in their family or are not married to them.[52] However, in all these cases, it should be noted that they are attached—not assigned—to combat units, and their primary purpose is not to "close with and kill the enemy." Generally speaking, if their unit comes under attack they may attempt to break contact, similar to what a Platoon Leader or Company Commander might do, staying close to the action but sitting back slightly and behind cover, leaving trained combat soldiers to do the fighting. Only in cases where they come under direct attack, or where their unit is caught in the fog of war will they, or have they traditionally been permitted to, take the fight to the enemy.

Besides the issue of women in combat, women have been a strategic advantage in training other women in police forces. This empowers women to have more of position in their community outside of their homes.[53]

Melody Kemp mentions that the Australian soldiers have voiced similar concern saying these soldiers "are reluctant to take women on reconnaissance or special operations, as they fear that in the case of combat or discovery, their priority will be to save the women and not to complete the mission. Thus while men might be able to be programmed to kill, it is not as easy to program men to neglect women."[54]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  • Cook, Bernard. Women and War: Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (2006)
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union", Journal of Military History 57 (April 1993), 301-323 online and in JSTOR 2944060
  • Cottam, K. Jean. "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Ground Forces and the Navy," International Journal of Women's Studies (1980) 3#4 pp 345–357
  • Cottam, K. Jean. "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Rear Services, Resistance behind Enemy Lines and Military Political Workers," International Journal of Women's Studies' (1982) 5#4 pp 363–378
  • Hacker, Barton C. and Margaret Vining, eds. A Companion to Women's Military History (2012) 625pp; articles by scholars covering a very wide range of topics
  • Hagemann, Karen, "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women’s War Service in the Two World Wars," Journal of Military History 75:3 (2011): 1055-1093
  • Krylova, Anna. Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (2010)


  • Goldman, Nancy Loring, ed. Female Soldiers--Combatants or Noncombatants? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (1982).
  • Symons, Ellen. "Under Fire: Canadian Women in Combat," Canadian journal of women and the law (1990) 4:477-511
  • Maitra, Sumantra. "Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies".,[55] Apr 2013[56]


  1. ^ Bernard Cook, Women and War: Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (2006)
  2. ^ D'Ann Campbell, "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union", Journal of Military History 57 (April 1993), 301-323
  3. ^ Anna Krylova, Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (2010)
  4. ^ K. Jean Cottam, "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Ground Forces and the Navy," International Journal of Women's Studies (1980) 3#4 pp 345-357
  5. ^ K. Jean Cottam, "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Rear Services, Resistance behind Enemy Lines and Military Political Workers," International Journal of Women's Studies (1982) 5#4 pp 363-378
  6. ^ Nancy Loring Goldman, ed. Female Soldiers--Combatants or Noncombatants? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (1982).
  7. ^ "Few women opt for frontline combat roles in Australia". GlobalPost. 2013-04-25. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  8. ^ Ellen Symons, "Under Fire: Canadian Women in Combat," Canadian journal of women and the law (1990) 4:477-511
  9. ^ "Integration of women in the IDF". Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 8 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  10. ^ "Women of the IDF". IDF Spokesperson's Unit. Retrieved 22 January 2012.
  11. ^ "Statistics: Women’s Service in the IDF for 2010, 25 Aug 2010". Israel Defense Forces. 25 August 2010. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  12. ^ Nato Review
  13. ^ Forsvarsnett: Kvinner
  14. ^ http://www.forsvarsmakten.se/sv/om-forsvarsmakten/arbetsplatsen/jamstalldhetsarbete/historik-och-statistik/
  15. ^ http://www.haznevi.net/Kavramoku.aspx?KID=589&KTID=6
  16. ^ a b http://www.nato.int/ims/2001/win/turkey.htm
  17. ^ "Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix". Ctie.monash.edu.au. Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  18. ^ http://www.nato.int/ims/2005/win/national_reports/turkey.pdf
  19. ^ "US military to permit women to serve in combat units". JURIST Legal News & Research. Retrieved 27 January 2013. 
  20. ^ "The Legal Implications of Lifting the Combat Restrictions". 2013-01-31. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  21. ^ After first co-ed infantry class, new perspectives on women in combat accessed November 25, 2013
  22. ^ Here’s The Grueling Course Three Female Marines Aced Christina Ng, ABC News, published November 21, 2013, accessed November 24, 2013
  23. ^ a b Three women pass Marine ‘grunt’ test, but Corps holds off on letting them in infantry Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, published November 20, 2013, accessed November 24, 2013
  24. ^ C. Todd Lopez (January 27, 2014). "Army to open 33,000 positions to female Soldiers in April.". Army News Service. Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  25. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/19/women-combat-roles-british-army-infantry-armoured-units
  26. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/08/women-set-for-combat-roles-in-british-army
  27. ^ Maitra, Sumantra (22 April 2013). "Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies". Global Policy. 
  28. ^ "Key Indicator Method for Activities involving Pulling, Pushing". Lighten the Load. Senior Labour Inspectors Committee (SLIC). Retrieved 27 May 2013. If women perform this task, the rating points are multiplied by a factor of 1.3. This takes account of the fact that women have on average about 2/3 the capacity of men. 
  29. ^ "Key Indicator Method for Activities involving Lifting, Holding, Carrying". Lighten the Load. Senior Labour Inspectors Committee (SLIC). Retrieved 27 May 2013. ... the effective load of equal or above 40 kg for a man and 25 kg for a women. 
  30. ^ "Senior Labour Inspectors Committee". Health and safety at work. European Union. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  31. ^ a b "Women in Combat: Frequently Asked Questions". Center for Military Readiness. 22 November 2004. Archived from the original on 20 December 2004. 
  32. ^ Effect of Isokinetic Strength Training and Deconditioning on Bone Stiffness, Bone Density and Bone Turnover in Military-Aged Women
  33. ^ "Stress Fractures in Female Army Recruits: Implications of Bone Density, Calcium Intake, and Exercise - Cline et al. 17 (2): 128 - Journal of the American College of Nutrition". Jacn.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  34. ^ "Women and Military". Cdi.org. Retrieved 2012-08-18. 
  35. ^ "Überprüfung der körperlichen Leistungsfähigkeit" (PDF, 250 kB) (in German). Austrian Armed Forces. 13 July 2011. p. 1 f. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  36. ^ "Körperliche und geistige Fitness als Voraussetzung" (in German). Austrian Armed Forces. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  37. ^ "Gleiche Fitness-Beurteilung für Mann und Frau" (in German). Swiss Armed Forces. 2007. Retrieved 28 May 2013. As women have to meet the same minimum physical requirements in all branches of service as men, they are now also assessed at the same TFR (Fitness-Test). 
  38. ^ 2 More Women Fail Marine Infantry Test - Business Insider
  39. ^ "Women in the Military: Combat Roles Considered". Cdi.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  40. ^ Soucy, John (February 5, 1980). "Heroes Turn Out for Exhibit Opening at Army Women's Museum". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  41. ^ "Women in Combat". Userpages.aug.com. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  42. ^ Gold, Philip; Solaro, Erin (May 17, 2005). "Facts about women in combat elude the right". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 
  43. ^ a b "Center for Military Readiness | Women in Combat". Cmrlink.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  44. ^ "For Female GIs, Combat Is a Fact". The Washington Post. May 13, 2005. 
  45. ^ Kristof, Nicholas D. (NY Times) (April 25, 2003). "A Woman's Place". 
  46. ^ Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter: Remarks on Women in Combat[dead link]
  47. ^ "Another Clinton legacy". American Thinker. 2011-07-28. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  48. ^ Dr. Regina T. Akers (2009-03-19). "Women in the military ‘‘In and Out of Harm’s Way". Dcmilitary.com. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  49. ^ "Marine Corps News Room: Lioness Program ‘pride’ of the Corps". Marine-corps-news.com. 2009-03-13. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  50. ^ "Quantico Sentry - Lioness program continues to roar". Quantico.usmc.mil. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  51. ^ "Course trains cultural teams to work with women in theater | Article | The United States Army". Army.mil. 2011-01-21. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  52. ^ "Coalition for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans » Blog Archive » FEMALE SOLDIERS SAY THEY’RE UP FOR BATTLE". Coalitionforveterans.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  53. ^ "DVIDS - News - Female Engagement Teams foil insurgent tactics". Dvidshub.net. 2011-11-25. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  54. ^ Women in Action (3:1999) | Femme Fatale: Women in the Military Service - Melody Kemp[dead link]
  55. ^ Global Policy Journal
  56. ^ Maitra, Sumantra (April 2013). "Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies". Global Policy. 

External links[edit]