Women Soldiers in NATO


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the spring of 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War, when military groupings coalesced around the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other. It was the start of a standoff that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 1976, NATO’s highest authority, the Military Committee, recognized the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces. Since then, the status of women in NATO forces has changed beyond recognition. Between 1976 and 2001 the number of females in NATO uniforms rose from 30,000 to nearly 300,000. The pace and scale of integration, however, differs from country to country within NATO.

In April 1949, acting in response to the Soviet land blockade of West Berlin, the United States and Canada had combined with Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom to form NATO to provide for the collective defense of the major Western European states and the North American states against the perceived military threat from the Soviet Union.

Since 1949, NATO has undergone successive enlargements, and following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire has been joined by a number of Eastern European states that in the Cold War were members of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet counterweight to NATO formed in 1955 and dissolved in 1991. In 2006, full members of NATO were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

In some respects, Norway and Denmark have made the most striking progress toward the integration of women into the military. Norway was the first NATO country to allow women to serve on submarines, and since 1985 women have been allowed into all other combat functions. In 1988, Denmark opened all functions and formations in its armed services to women following a series of combat-arms trials conducted between 1985 and 1987. Women in Norway and Denmark have only been held back from entry into the para-rangers and marine commandos, both functions in which they have not met the entry requirements. Otherwise, female soldiers train, work, and are deployed on equal terms with men.

Nevertheless, representation of women in the armed forces of Norway and Denmark remains relatively low, at, respectively, 3.2 percent and 5 percent. Norway appointed its first female defense minister in 1999, but few female soldiers have progressed to senior ranks, and it was not until November 1999 that Norway appointed its first female colonel. One reason for this is that many female officers change from operational to administrative duties after maternity leave, reducing their chances of being selected to study at military academies.

The NATO nation with the highest representation of women in the armed forces is the United States, with 14 percent. The breakthrough for US servicewomen came with the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1973. At the time, disillusionment with the military in the aftermath of the Vietnam War meant that men were reluctant to serve, and as a result female recruits were welcome. By 2001, 8.6 percent of US troops deployed worldwide were women and nearly 11,500 had supported NATO peacekeeping operations.

In Canada, women have been able to serve in almost all military functions and environments, including submarines, since 1989. However, most women in the Canadian armed forces—at 7,900, some 15 percent of regular personnel—are to be found in traditional fields and there has been only patchy progress toward integrating them into the combat arms—infantry, artillery, field engineering, and armor—where representation hovers around 2 percent. In May 2006, Canada suffered its first loss of an active-combat female soldier when Captain Nichola Goddard, one of 230 female Canadian forces personnel serving in Afghanistan, died in an engagement with Taliban forces.

France, which withdrew from NATO’s military-command structure in 1966, granted female soldiers equal status in the early 1970s but retained quotas until 1998. Currently some 23,500 women make up just under 10 percent of the 260,400 active personnel in France’s front-line armed forces. Of France’s 6,800 naval aviators, 480 are women. Of the 64,000 air force personnel, some 7,000 are women. The French army comprises 137,700 personnel, of whom 12,500 are female.

In the United Kingdom, women in the armed forces were segregated into women’s corps until the early 1990s, at which point the role of women underwent considerable changes. Women were able to serve at sea in surface ships and in all aircrew roles. In the Royal Air Force over 95 percent of posts are open to women, and approximately 70 percent in the army and navy.

British women in the military now serve alongside men in nearly all specialties, with an exception being units whose primary duty is “to close with and kill the enemy,” where it is still felt that their presence would impair combat effectiveness. This restriction is consistent with a ruling of the European Court of Justice that allows women to be excluded from certain posts on grounds of combat effectiveness and leaves the final decision on the precise definition of the term to national authorities.

At present British servicewomen are not allowed to drive tanks, serve in the front-line infantry, or work as mine-clearance divers. They cannot be part of the Infantry, Royal Armored Corps, Royal Marines, or the RAF Regiment, and are also barred from submarine posts. In 2006 the British army’s 7,432 women comprised 6.7 percent of the force; there were some 5,000 women (8.9 percent) in the Royal Air Force; and 2,890 (7.8 percent) in the Royal Navy, with 745 at sea aboard fifty ships.

The role of women in the modern navy was thrown into sharp relief by an international incident in March 2007. A fifteen-strong boarding party from the frigate Cornwall, which was patrolling an area south of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf, was taken prisoner by two Iranian fast boats. One of Cornwall’s boarding party was a woman, Acting Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the mother of a three-year-old child. The captured Britons were taken to Tehran and subjected to a sustained campaign of psychological harassment. Initially, Turney was separated from her colleagues, who were told that she had been sent home. She later appeared on Iranian television, wearing a hijab and making a confession that the boarding party had crossed into Iranian waters. After two weeks the boarding party was released and returned to the United Kingdom, having incurred considerable criticism for appearing to cooperate with their Iranian captors during their incarceration. Later Turney and another member of the boarding party, Arthur Batchelor, and their navy handlers, incurred even more criticism for selling their stories to British newspapers and television.

There were five fatalities among British women serving in Iraq between the invasion in March 2003 and April 2007. The overall figure for fatalities during the same period was 140. In a war with no front line in the traditional sense, British servicewomen increasingly found themselves in the fighting as medics, signalers, and in logistics crews. Private Michelle Norris, a teenage medic with the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing her wounded patrol leader during a fierce firefight in al-’Amarah, Iraq, in the summer of 2006.

In the spring of 2007 there were some 1,600 female troops on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for much of the time they were exposed to the lethal hazards of roadside bombs and mortar fire. There are no restrictions on women deploying on operations unless they are pregnant. Although they cannot join a unit whose primary duty is “to close with and kill the enemy”—for example, the infantry and cavalry—women undertake a number of postings fraught with risk, and their deployment has its critics.

Colonel Bob Stewart, the first commander of British forces under UN command in Bosnia, opposes women being close to combat, arguing that their deaths or injuries have a debilitating effect on male comrades. One female soldier died in his arms in Northern Ireland, and the trauma rendered him inconsolable and effectively unable to operate. Stewart reflected, “If you put women in the front line because they are equal, then you have to expect that there will be operational casualties.”

Belgium’s armed forces, which were opened to women in 1975, now contain just over 7 percent female personnel, a number that continues to rise. All functions are open to women, but the majority occupy administrative and logistic posts. In Luxembourg, which has no air force or navy, women were allowed to enter the army in 1987, and today they make up 0.6 percent of personnel.

Most Mediterranean countries began opening their armed forces to women in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, Greece admitted women noncommissioned officers to support functions, but military academies remained closed to them until 1990, and full access to military education has still not been achieved. Women are excluded from combat roles but can go to sea, and, since 2001, have served as aircrew in the Greek air force. Spain began to recruit women in 1988, followed by Portugal in 1992, and in both countries female servicewomen make up some 6 percent of total strength. In Spain, combat positions are open to women, but over half serve in administrative posts. Portuguese women can in theory apply for all posts, but in practice posts in the marines and combat specialties remain closed to them.

In Turkey, women were accepted into military academies in the late 1950s, but this policy was reversed in the 1960s, and it was not until 1982 that they were readmitted to military education, a process that only got under way in the early 1990s. As a result, women in the Turkish armed forces make up a mere 0.1 percent of personnel. They can serve as officers but are restricted from serving in the armored and infantry fields and in submarines.

Italy was the last NATO member to admit women to the military. In September 1999, after a long and vociferous campaign mounted by La Associazione Nazionale Aspiranti Donne Soldato (Association of Aspiring Women Soldiers), the Italian Parliament passed legislation enabling women to serve in the armed forces. The first female recruits reported for duty in 2000, and in June 2001, to mark this success, the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces met in Rome. The Italian armed forces are taking a gradualist approach to the integration of women, bringing them into general support rather than operational positions and maintaining restrictions on their admission into military academies.

In the countries that have become members of NATO in recent years, simultaneous preparations for accession to the European Union stimulated the introduction of equal opportunities for women in the military. In the Czech Republic, servicewomen represent nearly 4 percent of service personnel. The figure in Hungary is higher, around 9 percent, but women are largely restricted to traditional roles. In Poland the figure is very low, at about 0.1 percent, and most servicewomen fill medical posts.

In Germany, until 2000 approximately 3,800 women made up 24 percent of the military’s medical service. Another 37 women served in military bands. These were the only two branches in which women were allowed to serve, as they were prohibited by law from rendering service that involved the use of arms.

In February 2000 the European Court of Justice ruled, after a challenge by a German woman, Tanja Kreil, who wanted to enter the army as a maintenance technician, that it is contrary to European law that women are not allowed into nearly all branches of the military. The policy of recruiting women to the German armed forces was reconsidered, and from 2001 women were able to enter all branches and careers in the military. In 2005, there were some 7,200 women in the German army; 2,350 in the air force; 1,600 in the navy; and 5,600 in the medical corps.

Reference: Rebecca R. Moore, NATO’s New Mission: Projecting Stability in a Post–Cold War World, 2007.


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