Women in the Military

The WRI Women's Working Group has had a long standing interest in women's militarization, including the role of women in militaries. This last issue can be a problematic one for feminist pacifists. Pacifists have no interest in encouraging women to join the military; rather, they support anti-militarist work that keep both women and men out of the armed forces. Conservative forces that support a restricted and traditional view of women's place also strongly oppose women in the military. While recognizing women's leadership skills and capabilities, feminist pacifists also reject the argument that increasing women's roles and numbers in militaries is a sign of women's increasing equality with men.

Whether women's increased role in the military is opposed for conservative or radical reasons, it appears to be a lost cause. In Australia, Canada, the People's Republic of China and the USA, women comprise some 10 percent of the military. In some guerrilla movements women were one-third to 40 percent of the armed forces, as in El Salvador an Nicaragua. Women are organizing to fight laws that refuse them combat training. In July 1998 Italian women in the Association of Aspiring Women Soldiers led a protest in front of the Chamber of Deputies, protesting the slow progress of a law to allow Italian women to join the military. In January of this year a high court in Germany ruled in favor of a woman complainant who objected to the law that forbade women serving in combat units.

In the USA feminist organizations such as the Women's Research and Education Institute (1700 18th Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20009, USA. Tel. +1 202 328 7070) actively monitors and promotes the rights of women in the military. "Since 1973, when the male draft ended and the All Volunteer Force began, the percentage of women among US military personnel has increased dramatically, from 1.6 percent in 1973, to 8.5 percent in 1980, to 10.8 percent in 1989..." begins a recent Institute report, which notes that 41 percent of all US enlisted women are women of color. The report does note the lack of women in officer ranks, but does not mention a 1990 study that found that two out of three military women surveyed said that they had been sexually harassed ("Sexual Harassment: Research and Resources: A Report-in-Progress," by The National Council for Research on Women, November 1991). Nor did the report mention US Department of Defense statistics that show women are three times as likely as men to be discharged from the military for homosexuality.

The military is changing: United Nations armed forces are now given training in peacekeeping. How will this changing role affect women both inside and outside the military? If military service becomes increasingly portrayed as a form of community service or humanitarian aid, will more women be attracted to military service? Do such roles reinforce or challenge traditional stereotypes of women? In countries where minority women find secure employment in the military, what is the peace movement doing about discrimination in the civilian sector?

The WRI Women's Working Group encourages reflection on these and other issues, and asks readers to send in their comments, news, and statistics on women in the military.