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Women and the Army: One Hundred Years of Progress?

From the Old Comrades Association Gazette​, Vol VI, November 1925. ©IWM.

On 24 June, the National Army Museum held a conference entitled ‘Women and the Army: One Hundred Years of Progress?’ to commemorate the centenary of women’s entry into the armed forces. The conference brought together researchers as well as current servicewomen, with papers discussing women’s experiences in the military from 1917 to the present day.

The first three papers focusing on the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the first voluntary women’s military unit established in 1917. Following this, a particularly fascinating paper was given by Dr. Katrina Kirkwood on the experiences of women doctors during the First World War, inspired by her own grandmother who was one of the first female doctors to be recruited by the army. Many of the papers unsurprisingly concentrated on women’s direct involvement with the military, either as auxiliaries or soldiers. But the paper given by Sarah Paterson from the Imperial War Museum highlighted the important role of Army Schoolmistresses, who despite their non-military status nonetheless played a vital role in army life.

My paper focused on the impact of military service on women who served in the army, navy and air force during the First World War. Each branch of the women’s forces – the Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) – established organizations after demobilization in 1918 specifically for ex-servicewomen, called the Old Comrades Associations. Each of the Associations published monthly journals which updated members on upcoming social gatherings and reunion dinners, whilst also providing a space in which former servicewomen could reconnect with each other and reflect on their experiences of serving in either the army, the navy or the air force. My paper used the articles and reports in these journals to explore and assess the impact of the relationships and sense of ‘comradeship’ expressed by ex-servicewomen as a consequence of their wartime service. I argued that even after demobilisation, the experience of wartime service remained a guiding cultural memory for women, whose time serving with either the QMAAC, WRAF or WRNS often had a profound and long-lasting impact on women’s self-identities.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conference was the inclusion of speakers who were former or current servicewomen. Hannah West, a current PhD student at the University of Bath, gave a paper on the role of women in counter-insurgency campaigns in Malay in the 1950s. But, as she stated at the beginning of her talk, her research was profoundly influenced by her own experience serving with the Royal Navy, particularly her involvement with engagement teams working with Afghan women. The final talk entitled ‘Women in the Army To-Day’ was given by two current servicewomen from the Army Servicewomen’s Network. The enduring challenges faced by women in the armed forced were outlined, with personal examples given by the speakers of gendered prejudice they experienced during their service. But as the talk made clear, the Army Servicewomen’s Network is making a concerted and determined effort to improve the experiences of women serving with the military. New proposals are being formulated which aim to address some of the problems which are preventing women from forming a greater proportion of the armed forces, including flexible working hours following maternity leave.

The scope of conference, with papers covering the First and Second World Wars up to the eventual demise of the separate women’s corps in 1992, made clear the real progress that has been made for women in the military since 1917. But as the speakers from the Army Servicewomen’s Network made clear, there is a still a long way to go, despite former Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2016 ruling that the ban on women serving in close combat roles should be removed. Hearing the stories of servicewomen over the last 100 years, alongside the contemporary efforts of current servicewomen, left me hopeful that women in the armed forces can build on ‘one hundred years of progress’ and look forward to a future in which additional existing barriers to women’s full and equal participation will be abolished.

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