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 overwhelmingly male. In a few cases however, individual women have been recorded as serving 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 after February Revolution 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 aircraft. They were widely accepted because they were not at risk of capture.[2] In the Soviet Union, there was 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]

Specific countries[edit]


The Australian military began a five-year plan to open combat roles to women in 2011. Front line combat roles opened in January 2013.[6]


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 2000.[7]


In 2016, India announced a decision to allow women to take up combat roles in all sections of its army, navy and air force. India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the armed forces in 1992.[8]

In 2014, India's army had 3 per cent women, the Navy 2.8 per cent and the Air Force performed best with 8.5 per cent women.[9]

In 2015 India opened new combat air force roles for women as fighter pilots, adding to their role as helicopter pilots in the IAF [Indian Air Force].[10]


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."[11] As of 2011, 88% to 92% of all roles in the IDF are open to female candidates, while women can be found in 69% of all positions.[12][13]

In 2014, the IDF said that fewer than 4 percent of women are in combat positions such as infantry, tank crews, artillery guns service, fighter pilots, etc. Rather, they are concentrated in "combat-support".[14]

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.


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.[15][16] In 2015, Norway made women eligible for compulsory military service.

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 have been able to serve in all positions in the Swedish military since 1989. Currently, about 5.5% of all officers are women.[17]


Turkish women have voluntarily taken tasks in the defence of their country. Nene Hatun, whose monument has been erected in Erzurum, fought during the Ottoman-Russian War. Turkish women also took main roles in combat in WWI[18] and the Independence War.[19] Sabiha Gökçen was the first Turkish female combat pilot,[20][21] having flown 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8,000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions.[22]

Women personnel are being employed as officers in the Turkish Armed Forces today. As of 2005, there are 1245 female officers and NCOs in the Turkish Armed Forces.[23] 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.[19]

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). The United States has more women in its military, than any other nation.[24] 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.

On January 24, 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military's ban on women serving in combat.[25] Implementation of these rules is ongoing. There is some speculation that this could lead to women having to register with the Selective Service System.[26]

On November 21, 2013, the first three women to ever complete the United States Marine Corps’ Infantry Training Battalion course graduated from the United States Marine Corps School of Infantry in Camp Geiger, North Carolina.[27][28] 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.[28]

In April 2015 after two-and-a-half year period in which the tough Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course became gender-integrated for research ended without a single female graduate.[29] The final two participants in the Marines' experiment with training women for ground combat started and failed the IOC on April 2. Both were dropped that same day during the grueling initial Combat Endurance Test.[30]

Army Ranger Battalions and Navy SEAL units plan to open positions to women by 2015 and 2016, respectively.

In December 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated that starting in 2016 all combat jobs would open to women.[31] The decision was not supported by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford of the Marine Corps, who wanted to keep certain direct combat positions such as infantry and machine gunner closed to women.[32][33]

In March 2016, Ash Carter approved final plans from military service branches and the U.S. Special Operations Command to open all combat jobs to women, and authorized the military to begin integrating female combat soldiers "right away."[34]

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’.[35][36]


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.[37]

Physical concerns[edit]

In civil employment, the average female physical performance is limited to two thirds of the physical performance of men by regulations.[38][39][40] 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”.[41]

A 2014-2015 experiment by the Marine Corps with a gender-integrated combat unit found that women were twice as likely to suffer injuries significant enough to remove them from duty, and that women's shooting accuracy was much less than that of men in simulated combat situations. Female soldiers were also found to have lower performance in the basic combat tasks like negotiating obstacles and removing wounded troops from the battlefield.[42][43]

The female skeletal system is less dense, and more prone to breakages.[44][45] 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.[verification needed] 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.[41]

In the Austrian Armed Forces and almost all NATO countries, significantly lower physical performance requirements for entrance and subsequent tests apply to female soldiers in determining fitness for service.[46][47] The Swiss Armed Forces abolished this advantage for female soldiers in 2007.[48]

Psychological concerns[edit]

The purported disruption of a combat unit's morale is cited as another reason for women to be banned from front-line combat situations.[49][50][51]

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.[52][53]

In the British Army, which continues to ban 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."[54]

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.[53] 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.[55] 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.[56] Other observers state that without women, the military would have numerous personnel shortfalls they would not be able to fill.[57]

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 instinctual protective aggression that was uncontrollable, 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.

In a similar vein, Melody Kemp mentions that the Australian military has also voiced similar concerns saying their 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."[58]

Grossman also notes that Islamic militants rarely, if ever, surrender to female soldiers. Similarly, Iraqi and Afghan civilians are often not intimidated by female soldiers.

In modern warfare, however, where "winning minds" and gaining intelligence can prove more important at times than enemy casualties, having female soldiers serving alongside a combat unit may have some advantages. For example, the use of female US military personnel attached to combat units specifically for the purpose of performing culturally sensitive searches such as in the USMC Lioness program which used female Marines to search females [59] at checkpoints both on the Iraq-Syrian border [60] and inside urban areas.[61] Another example is the US Army Cultural Support Teams (CSTs). that accompany special operations teams and work alongside them providing access to the needs of and information and from local community women in communities where contact between male soldiers and civilian women is culturally fraught.[62]

And indeed there is evidence showing women in both Iraq and Afghanistan have had considerable success in acquiring intelligence 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.[63] 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.

Where the presence of women may be a factor in reducing combatants' willingness to fight, this consideration may override others and thus should be carefully assessed.

Finally, besides the issue of women in combat, women have presented a strategic advantage in training other women in police forces. Their presence has modeled and created opportunities for women to have positions in their community outside of their homes.[64]

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".,[65] Apr 2013[66]


  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. ^ "Few women opt for frontline combat roles in Australia". GlobalPost. 2013-04-25. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  7. ^ Ellen Symons, "Under Fire: Canadian Women in Combat," Canadian journal of women and the law (1990) 4:477-511
  8. ^ "Indian armed forces to recruit women for all combat roles: President". ChannelNewsAsia. 
  9. ^ "Indian Army's shameful treatment of women recruits". NDTV. 
  10. ^ "India paves way for women in military combat roles" Channel NewsAsia 24 Oct 2015
  11. ^ "Integration of women in the IDF". Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 8 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  12. ^ "Women of the IDF". IDF Spokesperson's Unit. Retrieved 22 January 2012.
  13. ^ "Statistics: Women’s Service in the IDF for 2010, 25 Aug 2010". Israel Defense Forces. 25 August 2010. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  14. ^ Gaza: It's a Man's War The Atlantic, 7 Aug 2014
  15. ^ Nato Review
  16. ^ Forsvarsnett: Kvinner
  17. ^ http://www.forsvarsmakten.se/sv/om-forsvarsmakten/arbetsplatsen/jamstalldhetsarbete/historik-och-statistik/
  18. ^ http://www.haznevi.net/Kavramoku.aspx?KID=589&KTID=6
  19. ^ a b http://www.nato.int/ims/2001/win/turkey.htm
  20. ^ Lawson, Eric; Lawson, Jane (2007-10-01). The First Air Campaign: August 1914- November 1918. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306816687. 
  21. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Women's History". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  22. ^ "Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix". Ctie.monash.edu.au. Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  23. ^ http://www.nato.int/ims/2005/win/national_reports/turkey.pdf
  24. ^ Peach, Lucinda J (1994). "Women at War: The Ethics of Women in Combat". J. Pub. L. & Pol'y. HeinOnline. Retrieved 21 March 2016. 
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  26. ^ "The Legal Implications of Lifting the Combat Restrictions". 2013-01-31. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  27. ^ After first co-ed infantry class, new perspectives on women in combat accessed November 25, 2013
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ Marines' combat test period ends without female grad accessed January 6, 2016
  30. ^ Last IOC in Marine infantry experiment drops female officers accessed January 6, 2016
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  32. ^ http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2015/09/18/officials-marine-commandant-recommends-women-banned-some-combat-job/72421888/
  33. ^ "U.S. military opens combat positions to women - CNNPolitics.com". CNN. Retrieved 2015-12-04. 
  34. ^ "Ashton Carter approves final strategy for women in military combat roles". The Washingtion Times. 
  35. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/19/women-combat-roles-british-army-infantry-armoured-units
  36. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/08/women-set-for-combat-roles-in-british-army
  37. ^ Maitra, Sumantra (22 April 2013). "Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies". Global Policy. 
  38. ^ "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. 
  39. ^ "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. 
  40. ^ "Senior Labour Inspectors Committee". Health and safety at work. European Union. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
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  42. ^ Lamothe, Dan (September 10, 2015). "Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men". Washington Post. Retrieved 16 December 2015. 
  43. ^ U.S. Marines study: Women in combat injured more often than men UPI accessed January 6, 2016
  44. ^ Effect of Isokinetic Strength Training and Deconditioning on Bone Stiffness, Bone Density and Bone Turnover in Military-Aged Women
  45. ^ "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. 
  46. ^ "Überprüfung der körperlichen Leistungsfähigkeit" (PDF, 250 kB) (in German). Austrian Armed Forces. 13 July 2011. p. 1 f. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  47. ^ "Körperliche und geistige Fitness als Voraussetzung" (in German). Austrian Armed Forces. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  48. ^ "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). 
  49. ^ "Women in the Military: Combat Roles Considered". Cdi.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  50. ^ Soucy, John (February 5, 1980). "Heroes Turn Out for Exhibit Opening at Army Women's Museum". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  51. ^ "Women in Combat". Userpages.aug.com. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  52. ^ Gold, Philip; Solaro, Erin (May 17, 2005). "Facts about women in combat elude the right". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 
  53. ^ a b "Center for Military Readiness | Women in Combat". Cmrlink.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  54. ^ "For Female GIs, Combat Is a Fact". The Washington Post. May 13, 2005. 
  55. ^ Kristof, Nicholas D. (NY Times) (April 25, 2003). "A Woman's Place". 
  56. ^ Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter: Remarks on Women in Combat Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  57. ^ "Another Clinton legacy". American Thinker. 2011-07-28. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  58. ^ Women in Action (3:1999) | Femme Fatale: Women in the Military Service - Melody Kemp
  59. ^ Dr. Regina T. Akers (2009-03-19). "Women in the military In and Out of Harm's Way". Dcmilitary.com. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  60. ^ "Marine Corps News Room: Lioness Program 'pride' of the Corps". Marine-corps-news.com. 2009-03-13. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  61. ^ "Quantico Sentry - Lioness program continues to roar". Quantico.usmc.mil. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  62. ^ "Course trains cultural teams to work with women in theater | Article | The United States Army". Army.mil. 2011-01-21. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  63. ^ "Coalition for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans » Blog Archive » FEMALE SOLDIERS SAY THEY'RE UP FOR BATTLE". Coalitionforveterans.org. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  64. ^ "DVIDS - News - Female Engagement Teams foil insurgent tactics". Dvidshub.net. 2011-11-25. Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  65. ^ Global Policy Journal
  66. ^ 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]