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.


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 or in leadership roles as queens (such as Queen Boudica, who led the Britons against Rome; Joan of Arc is the most famous example).[1] During the First World War, first ever woman officer was enlisted for military service - Olena Stepaniv [pl; uk]. She was khorunzha of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen.[2] After the February Revolution, Russia used one all-female combat unit. Thousands of women served in combat and rearguard roles in the Spanish Civil War.[3][4] 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.[5] 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.[6][7] A few women also played combat roles in resistance movements in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.[8]

Specific countries[edit]


Female Australian soldiers in Afghanistan

The Australian military began a five-year plan to open combat roles to women in 2011. Front line combat roles opened in January 2013.[9] The positions women will now be able to fill are: Navy Ordnance disposal divers, airfield and ground defense guards, infantry, artillery and armored units.[10] Australia is one of nineteen countries which includes women in its direct combat forces.[11] During Australia's participation in World War II, the Australian military created a sub-branch of each of its armed forces specifically for females.[12] In 1977, the Royal Australian Air Force was the first Australian service to fully integrate women. The Australian Army was next, in 1979, followed by the Royal Australian Navy in 1985.[13] Servicewomen's combat restrictions were eased beginning in 1990. In 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that the Australian Cabinet had lifted all gender-based restrictions for women in combat.[14]


Women have been an important component of the military of Canada. Though, it was not until Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom was enacted in 1982, that the Armed Forces were required to consider the equality of women in the services and to permit them into all military roles. It took exactly 7 years, until 1989, for all combat roles to finally be opened to women in Canada. That same year, in 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Commission gave the Canadian Forces 10 years to meet a specific quota for women employed in the combat trades. Although the Canadian Human Rights Commission had an exception of excluding women of serving on submarines, it was eventually lifted by the Royal Canadian Navy on March 8, 2000 and roles opened in 2001.[15]

In 1998, the Canadian Forces embarked on a series of initiatives aimed at recruiting more women into the combat trades. While attrition remains an issue,[16] with significantly higher rates of women leaving their military careers than men, the introduction of women into the combat arms has increased the potential recruiting pool by about 100%.[17]

Jennie Carignan is the world's first-ever female to become a combat general. June 2016, she has been promoted to the highest rank achieved by a Canadian woman from the combat armed trade.[18] Although there were other Canadian female generals in the past, the roles were limited to non-combat disciplines such as intelligence, medicine, combat support or administration. For a long time it has been the support, and never the combat itself. However, female representation in the CAF has increased from 1.4 percent in 1965 to 15.3 percent as of January 2018. Numerically, this represents 14,434 women in a total combined CAF membership of 93,5784. As of February 2018, the total representation of women who served in combat arms (crewman, artillery, artilleryman, infantryman, infantry, engineer, combat engineer, and armoured) was 4.3%.[19] Jennie Carignan is currently on a mission to bring equal opportunities to the force by recruiting more women into combat roles and creating a better environment for women to pursue their careers in the military.


In 1988, Denmark created a policy of "total inclusion". They proposed "combat trials" which they explored how women fight on the front lines. A 2010 British Ministry of Defense study concluded that women performed the same as men. All positions in military are open to women, although as yet no women have fulfilled the physical requirements of the Special Operations Forces.[20]


Men are required to enlist whereas for women it is voluntary. If women do choose to enlist they are allowed to train for combat roles.[21] There are no restrictions for women in the Finnish combat.[22]


Women comprise nearly one-fifth of the military in France. Women can serve in most areas of the military except riot control. They have been allowed in submarines, including nuclear submarines, since 2014.[23] Women are allowed to serve in combat infantry. 1.7% of combat infantry are women.[20]


In 2001, Germany opened all combat units to women. This greatly increased recruitment for female soldiers. Since 2001, the number of women in the German Armed Forces has tripled. By 2009, 800 female soldiers were serving in combat units.[24]


India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the armed forces in 1992.

In 2007 on 19 January, the United Nations first all female peacekeeping force made up of 105 Indian policewomen was deployed to Liberia.[25]

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.[26]

In 2015 India opened new combat air force roles for women as fighter pilots, adding to their role as helicopter pilots in the Indian Air Force.[27]

In 2020, the Supreme Court of India has ordered the Centre to ensure that women officers are given a permanent commission (PC) in the Army while adding that the officers will now be eligible for command posting. The court stated that all terms of appointments of women officers shall be the same as their male counterparts.[28]


According to the Israel Defense Forces, 535 female Israeli soldiers had been killed in combat operations between the period 1962-2016 (this figure does not include the dozens of female soldiers killed in Israeli service prior to 1962).[29] In 2014, the IDF said that fewer than 4 percent of women are in combat positions such as infantry, artillery units, fighter pilots, etc. Rather, they are concentrated in "combat-support".[30]

In spite of this, women in ground combat positions are typically only deployed to guard duties in relatively quiet areas. Women are excluded from frontline infantry brigades which are actively deployed into combat zones.[31] Female infantry combatants are limited to three mixed-gender infantry battalions (the Caracal, Lions of Jordan, and Bardelas battalions) which are deployed along Israel's border with Egypt, the Jordan Valley, and the Arava region to guard against infiltration and smuggling attempts, the IDF's Oketz K9 unit, the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, and the Search and Rescue Unit of the Home Front Command. Although they are expected to respond if a combat situation breaks out during operational activity, female infantry soldiers are not actively deployed into war zones. They are also subjected to lighter physical training standards than male soldiers.[32] Female tank crews are limited to the Border Defense Array, in tanks guarding the borders with Egypt and Jordan, and are not part of regular armored units that are deployed into war zones. Their sole expectation as combatants is to return fire from a stationary position if engaged.[33][34][35]

The Israeli Air Force allows women to serve as pilots alongside men in all roles since the ban on women serving as pilots was lifted in 1995, though the IAF's combat pilots are still overwhelmingly male. By 2014, 38 women had been accepted as pilots into the Israeli Air Force since 1995, including 3 combat pilots and 16 combat navigators.[36]


Members of the YPJ, alongside their male YPG counterparts

Kurdish women have played a major role in militias fighting ISIL, including in combat roles. The Women's Protection Units in rojava is a pre-eminent example, constituting an estimated 40% of fighting forces. The YPJ operates as an autonomous organisation for co-ordinating women's defense in north-eastern Syria.[37]

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.[citation needed]


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.[38][39] Norway was, along with Israel, first to allow women to serve in all combat roles in the military in 1988.[40] In 2015, Norway made women eligible for compulsory military service.


Women in the Pakistan Armed Forces are the female soldiers who serve in the Pakistan Armed Forces.[1][2] Women have been taking part in Pakistani military since 1947 after the establishment of Pakistan. There are currently around 4,000 women who are serving in the Pakistan Armed Forces.[3][4] In 2006, the first women fighter pilots batch joined the combat aerial mission command of PAF[5][6][citation needed]

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 most military positions, including combat since 1983. The exception was tactical air service (pilot) and various submarine positions, which opened up in 1989. Since 2018, Sweden also conscripts women on the same (mandatory) terms as men. As of 2018, women constituted 15% of the selected conscripts and 7% of the professional military officers (however numbers were much higher on temporary positions).[41]


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[42] and the Independence War.[43] Sabiha Gökçen was the first Turkish female combat pilot,[44][45] having flown 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8,000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions.[46]

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.[47] 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.[43]

United Kingdom[edit]

In July 2016 all exclusions on women serving in Ground Close Combat (GCC) roles were lifted.[48]

All roles in the King's Royal Hussars, the Royal Tank Regiment, and all Army Reserve Royal Armoured Corps units have been opened to women, and women were permitted to join the rest of the previously closed GCC roles in the Royal Armoured Corps, British Army Infantry, Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment by the end of 2018.[49]

It's important to note, however, that even though GCC roles were closed to women until 2016, women have been previously on the "front line" and exposed to combat in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through other roles, such as all roles in the Royal Artillery, which despite being one of the combat arms is not classed as a GCC role. Women were permitted to serve in Fire Support Teams and on 105mm L118 Light Gun crews. Women were also permitted to apply to join the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, which is one of the major components of the UK Special Forces alongside the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and Special Forces Support Group. Women also served as combat medics attached to Army Infantry, Royal Marines and other GCC units. Some were awarded the prestigious Military Cross for bravery under fire.[50][51]

Six British women in the Iraq War, and three in the Afghanistan War were killed in action.[52][53]

United States[edit]

A female US Navy engineer on guard duty during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009

As far back as the Revolutionary War, when Molly Pitcher took over a cannon after her husband fell in the field, where she was delivering water (in pitchers), women have at times been forced into combat, though until recently they have been formally banned from choosing to do so intentionally.

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.[54] The United States has more women in its military than any other nation.[55]

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was a pivotal point for women in the Military. As the Army's mission changed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the roles of women also changed in the ranks. In 2016, women had the equal right to choose any military occupational specialty such as ground units that were not authorized before.[56]

On January 24, 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military's ban on women serving in combat.[57] Implementation of these rules is ongoing. There is some speculation that this could lead to women having to register with the Selective Service System.[58]

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.[59][60] 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.[60] However it was later reported on January 3, 2017 that three women who graduated became the first join a Marine combat battalion that would serve as a rifleman, machine gunner and mortar Marine in the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.[61]

In April 2015, a ​2 12-year period in which the tough Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course became gender-integrated for research ended without a single female graduate.[62] 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.[63]

Army Ranger Battalions and Navy SEAL units planned to open positions to women by 2015 and 2016, respectively. In August 2015, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first two women to graduate from the U.S. Army Ranger School, though at the time, women were not eligible to enlist in the 75th Ranger Regiment.[64] In September 2015, Ranger School would permanently open to women.[65][66] In 2016, Griest became the first female infantry officer in the US Army when the Army approved her request to transfer there from a military police unit.[67] By August 2019, 30 women earned their U.S. Army Ranger tab[68]

In December 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated that starting in 2016 all combat jobs would open to women.[69] The decision was not supported by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford of the Marine Corps, who wanted to keep certain direct combat positions such as infantry and machine gunner closed to women.[70][71]

One significant female contribution was recognized on June 16, 2005, when Sgt. Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star for her actions during a firefight that took place outside Baghdad. This was the first Silver Star in U.S. military history awarded to a woman soldier, not tied to Army medicine.[72]

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."[73] On October 26, 2016, ten women became the first female graduates from the United States Army's Infantry Basic Officer Leader's Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.[74]

In December 2016, an anonymous woman passed the RASP II selection course for the 75th Ranger Regiment. She was the first woman to graduate from a special operations unit selection course.[75]

On September 25, 2017, an anonymous woman, later revealed to be 1st Lt. Marina Hierl, became the first to complete the United States Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Virginia and become the first female Marine infantry officer.[76][77] The U.S. Marine Corps Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina has trained female U.S. marine recruits in female Marine units since 1949.[78][79][80] On December 14, 2020, it was revealed that the previously all-male Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego agreed to join the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in accepting female recruits, with 60 female recruits beginning their training in February 2021.[81][82][83][84] Three women had previously managed to successfully completed training at the depot in December 2020 to become drill sergeants.[85] By February 2021, female drill sergeants were actively training female recruits at the San Diego depot as well.[86]


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.[87]

Physical concerns[edit]

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”.[88]

Motherhood accounts for 58% of hospitalizations among active-duty female troops.

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.[89][90]

The female skeletal system is less dense, and more prone to breakages.[91][92] 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. 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.[88]

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.[93][94] The Swiss Armed Forces abolished this advantage for female soldiers in 2007.[95]

Social 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.[96][97][98]

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.[99] To compare, the U.S. military is substantially staffed by young women. The volunteer military has turned out to be "family friendly". Marriage is frequent and fertility levels are increasing to this day in the military.[100][101]

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.[101] 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 prisoner of war in 1991. At the time, she was asked not to mention that she had been molested while in captivity.[102]

There is also the opinion of one congresswoman that, by not incorporating women into combat, the American government is failing to tap into another source of soldiers for military combat operations. She criticizes standards that recognize that women do not have equal physical capabilities to men in combat.[103]

Tactical concerns[edit]

Lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman's book On Killing briefly mentions that female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) 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."[104]

One study from Harvard Business School and MIT has claimed that group intelligence of an organization rises when women are on teams. [105]

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.

Combat support[edit]

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[106] at checkpoints both on the Iraq-Syrian border[107] and inside urban areas.[108] 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.[109]

Women made a huge impact in 2010 when the United States Army began utilizing Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. The main purpose for these teams was to engage more female populations where such combat was not possible by male service members. These teams perform a number of duties, including intelligence gathering, relationship building, and humanitarian efforts.[56]

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.[110]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]


  • 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
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "The women of World War II." in A Companion to World War II ed. by Thomas W. Zeiler(2013) 2:717–738. online
  • Cook, Bernard. Women and War: Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (2006)
  • 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.
  • DeGroot, G. J. "Whose finger on the trigger? Mixed anti-aircraft batteries and the female combat taboo" War in History 4#4 434–453
  • 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)
  • Merry, L. K. Women Military Pilots of World War II: A History with Biographies of American, British, Russian and German Aviators (McFarland, 2010).
  • Pennington, Reina. Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women (Greenwood, 2003).
  • Pennington, Reina. Wings, Women & War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat. (University Press of Kansas, 2007).


  • 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".,[1] Apr 2013[2]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Global Policy Journal
  2. ^ Maitra, Sumantra (April 2013). "Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies". Global Policy.