Arms and the Woman: Militarizing gender wars

Arms and the Woman: Militarizing gender wars

Image: Vron Ware

Vron Ware, Open University

You know the British Army is experiencing a crisis in recruitment when they start to make noises about ending the ban on women in combat roles. Earlier this year, General Sir Peter Wall, head of the UK armed forces, conceded that it might be time to drop the current restrictions that bar women from the infantry section of the army. The general admitted that such a move would make the armed forces “look more normal to society” at a time when they were desperately trying to attract new recruits, both full and part-time. It would also demonstrate that the organization was committed to equal opportunities despite women comprising only 10% of the total workforce.

Perceptions of soldiering as a unique form of public service draw on notions of gender that are deeply rooted in society yet, at the same time, media representations of military work also shape these norms, as well as occasionally challenging them. Discussions about female soldiers routinely provoke ‘common sense’ observations about the physical and psychological differences between men and women while gender neutral access to combat roles is often considered the ultimate test of social equality. But this focus on women’s capacity to kill can be a distraction from other crucial dimensions of gender and militarism that deserve public scrutiny, not least the long running argument about whether human rights laws should be applicable within military institutions.

Being different

Britain’s military leaders have consistently claimed exemption from equality and diversity legislation on the grounds that, since the armed forces are trained to use lethal force, they are therefore different from the rest of society. Many defence pundits share these reservations too. When it was announced last year that the US military were dropping their ban on women in combat, a writer in the Telegraph asked: “Is the heat of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan any place for a woman?” But if women are considered ill-equipped for a war zone, what does this say about their experience as employees within this fiercely hierarchical, authoritarian organization? Evidence of alarming levels of sexual harassment in the armed forces has been gaining attention in recent weeks, a development that will not have escaped those concerned with recruitment.

General Wall’s intervention was made shortly after the conclusion of a high-profile inquest into a tragic case of sexual assault and bullying. On 10th October 2011 Anne-Marie Ellement, a corporal in the Royal Military Police (RMP), was found hanged at her barracks in Bulford, Wiltshire. A few months previously she had claimed that she was raped by two male colleagues after they had been drinking, but her case was dismissed after an RMP investigation.Following an inquest into the circumstances of her death, held earlier this year at the instigation of her sisters, the coroner found that the mental effects of the alleged rape, the workplace bullying she suffered in retaliation and her ‘work-related despair’ were all contributing factors in her suicide.

A week after the coroner gave his verdict, Defence Minister Philip Hammond announced that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) would be reforming the internal complaints system for armed forces personnel. Much was made of the news that individuals would, in future, be able to appeal to an independent ombudsman if they were not satisfied with the handling of their case. However, a wide range of critics pointed out that the ombudsman was virtually toothless as a disciplinary measure it would lack the power to override decisions made by senior officers. In other words, complaints could still be sidelined and the system of ‘kangaroo courts’ would remain.

The empirical evidence of a culture of sexist harassment and bullying continuesto mount. A Sunday Times investigation suggested that more than 200 allegations of rape and other sexual offences had been made against military personnel by their colleagues in the past three years. Statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 75 rape allegations and 150 alleged sexual assaults were reported to military police between 2011 and 2013. Following a BBC investigation into the impact of army banter in April, the Telegraph published an article under the headline: ‘“Climate of fear” in Army leaves female soldiers too ‘terrified’ to complain’.

It is not just the mainstream media that is beginning to look more closely at these issues. Last year Liberty launched the Military Justice campaign to uphold the human rights of those who work in the armed forces, saying that, “We believe that the rights of service men and women are just as deserving of protection as civilians”. However, the plight of the female soldier often attracts publicity that is less concerned with equality and justice and more obsessed with pointing out the tyranny of European human rights legislation.

Troubling Questions

During the inquest into Ellement’s suicide, the Daily Mail published a front page headline declaring that, in the last decade, 200 British servicewomen had been sent home after discovering that they were pregnant. The article revealed that 99 were ‘evacuated’ from Afghanistan and 103 from Iraq, since ‘mothers-to-be’ were banned from working in conflict zones. Inside, the lead editorial complained that this astonishing news raised ‘troubling questions about the suitability of some women to serve on the frontline’.

Where the reporting of the inquest was broadly sympathetic to the Ellement family in their quest for justice, the item about pregnancy set out to undermine the principles of equality that made it possible for women to be soldiers at all. The real target was not the servicewomen who may or may not have got their timing wrong, or, worse still, had sex while on deployment, but the MoD for its reluctance to make pregnancy tests mandatory on the grounds that it would constitute discriminatory practice. “Once again,” the editorial thundered, “in their obsession with ‘rights’ and political correctness, Whitehall manages to blast itself in the foot. Will officialdom never learn?”

In their book Sexing the Soldier: The Politics of Gender and the Contemporary British Army, Trish Winter and Rachel Woodward argue that media scrutiny of cases involving women and minorities is not only an important method of bringing military matters to the attention of civilian audiences, but it can also reveal how representations of soldiering feed political agendas as well. The reporting of employment tribunals certainly offers the public a glimpse of working conditions inside the armed forces. But the context of seeking legal redress might mean that the female complainant is depicted as the source of the problem rather than the victim of any wrongdoing.

Lines of duty

There have been two significant examples in last few years, both involving servicewomen whose grievances transcended gender discrimination. In April 2010, Tilern Debique, a former British soldier from St Vincents, successfully sued the MoD for discrimination on grounds of race and sex. The ruling in her favor confirmed that she had suffered discrimination through her status as a migrant as well as a single parent. Whereas UK personnel in her position would have been able to call on family members to help with childcare, this was not an option for Debique. She was awarded £17,016 compensation on the grounds that she had not been treated “on a level playing field” with the other soldiers.

Debique’s grievance can be compared to another landmark claim made two years earlier when a employment tribunal considered a case of sexual discrimination, as well as discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference. In this example, Kerry Fletcher, who joined in 1996, was awarded £187,000 in compensation after the tribunal accepted her evidence of sexual harassment by a male sergeant. Fletcher, who was open about her homosexuality, was forced to leave the army before her 12-year contract was finished after being bullied by the sergeant who threatened to ‘convert’ her. The tribunal commented: “This is as severe a case of victimization following an allegation of sexual harassment as one could see in an employment tribunal”.

The structure of outrage in the tabloid reporting of the separate tribunal hearings was strikingly similar. The lurid representation suggested that for each example of inappropriate behavior there was a model of the deserving and compliant. Being a mother of young children need not be an obstacle, and in fact it could indicate an added readiness to serve the nation as long as the soldier had the equivalent of a ‘wife’ to provide the unconditional care demanded of army spouses. However, the commentary reiterated the view that the military was not a place for single parents, particularly if they were women and especially if they asked for ‘extra’ support. It is significant that in each case, the amount claimed and then paid out to the two women was compared to compensation awarded to those injured in the line of duty.

This type of media coverage suggests that particular cases of harassment inside the army can serve an important purpose within the context of broader debates about human rights legislation. The Fletcher case undoubtedly drew attention to the corrosive effects of victimization in an authoritarian environment. But the subsequent media caricatures of self-serving, disloyal individuals, hellbent on rinsing their employer for financial gain, could be read as an ideological critique of punitive European human rights laws that both defy common sense and disrupt Britain’s sovereignty. Seen in this light, the body of the female soldier becomes a battleground for a different order of conflict that stretches from the heart of military culture into the maelstrom of political life.


Basham, Victoria  (2013) War, Identity and the Liberal State: Everyday Experiences of the Geopolitical in the Armed Forces, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ware, Vron (2014) ‘Thin Ice: Postcoloniality and Sexuality in the

Politics of Citizenship and Military Service’ in Sandra Ponzanesi (ed) Gender, Globalization, and Violence in Postcolonial Conflict Zones, Abingdon: Routledge.

Winter, Trish and Woodward, Rachel (2007) Sexing the Soldier: The Politics of Gender and the Contemporary British Army, Abingdon: Routledge.

Vron Ware is a Senior Research Fellow at the Open University. Her latest book, Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country (Palgrave 2012) ( will be available in paperback in October. She writes a regular column on militarisation in openDemocracy.