The Role of Women in the Armed Forces of NATO Countries: Military Constraints and Professional Identities

By Carreiras, Helena | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Fall-Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Role of Women in the Armed Forces of NATO Countries: Military Constraints and Professional Identities


Carreiras, Helena, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


The fight to fight and lead wars has until very recently always been considered an exclusively masculine prerogative. With the exception of war heroines and mythological figures, women have effectively taken part in combat only in exceptional circumstances. The "disarmament" of women is prevalent in most societies, even when different forms of female involvement in military operations have been recorded. Where women have been involved in war, it should, of course, be noted that, despite the importance of the roles they performed, women tend to "disappear" from historical accounts of military enterprises (cf. Hacker, 1981).

Even when women participated in military conflicts as combatants, at the end of the war they were expected to give up military roles and return to the domestic sphere. As stated by M. Segal, "what has happened in the past in many nations is that when the armed forces need women, their prior military history is recalled to demonstrate that they can perform effectively in various positions. There is a process of cultural amnesia regarding the contributions women made during emergency situations, until a new emergency arises and then history is rediscovered" (Segal, 1993:84). Moreover, as studies on female fighters throughout history show, when women enter the military domain, it is usually the definition of these particular women that alters, while broader conceptions about women, war, or masculinity are left intact (Macdonald, 1985).

This pattern has, however, been subject to a considerable transformation in recent decades. From the early seventies, most Western armed forces began to admit women. Contrary to historical precedents, this inclusion of women has not occurred in wartime and, no longer auxiliaries, women have risen progressively in military rank, been trained much as men are, and performed functions in areas that are not traditionally feminine.

The challenge these trends have meant to the military establishment is illustrated by former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman J. Vessey's observation that "the influx of women has brought greater change to the U.S. military than the introduction of nuclear weapons" (Carrol, Hall, 1993:19).

These changes are usually considered to relate to two wide-reaching social processes in Western democratic societies: the reshaping of military institutions following the end of the Cold War and the changing model for women's social participation, with parallel transformations in the cultural framework regulating the symbolic system of gender relationships.

In this paper, one particular question will be under scrutiny: the constraints on women's integration that relate to the structure and policies of the armed forces. Using empirical information produced in NATO countries--especially Portugal--during the past two decades, it will also address the problem of women's institutional identity and its relation to organizational policies.

Military Constraints and the Politics of Women's Integration in NATO armed forces

The process described above has been taking place in different rhythms and organizational configurations in the various NATO countries. Indeed, women's access to certain military positions, namely those related to combat, access to military academies or positions of power inside the ranks is very uneven, and women are still, in fact, largely absent from decisionmaking spheres regarding defense and military issues.

However, by the end of the present decade, despite a strong heterogeneity regarding integration policies, all NATO countries, with the exception of Italy, will have admitted and generally increased the number of women in their armed forces.(2)

Various aspects of military organizational structure have always had a major impact on women's military roles. Some are macro level variables such as the national security situation or the effects of technological change in society and inside the armed forces. …

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