History Women Military


Source: Wikipedia

Women in the military have a history that extends over 400 years into the past, throughout a large number of cultures and nations. Women have played many roles in the military, from ancient warrior women, to the women currently serving in conflicts, even though the vast majority of all combatants have been men in every culture.

Even though women serving in the military has often been controversial, relatively few women in history have fought alongside men. In the American Civil War, there were a few women who cross-dressed as men in order to fight. Fighting on the battle front as men was not the only way women involved themselves in war. Some women braved the battlefront as nurses and aides.

World Wars

Nursing became almost the only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the war. In Britain the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and Voluntary Aid Detachment were all started before World War I. The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.

More than 12,000 women enlisted in the United States Navy and Marine Corps during the First World War. About 400 of them died in that war.

Over 2,800 women served with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War and it was during that era that the role of Canadian women in the military first extended beyond nursing. Women were given paramilitary training in small arms, drill, first aid and vehicle maintenance in case they were needed as home guards. Forty-three women in the Canadian military died during WWI.

During the twentieth century, women of the world became indispensable in the war efforts. In many countries the need for female participation in the First World War was seen as almost necessary, as unprecedented numbers of men were wounded and killed. In the Second World War, the need for women arose again. Whether it was on the home front or the front-lines, for civilian or enlisted women, the World Wars started a new era for women’s opportunities to contribute in war and be recognized for efforts outside of the home.

During World War I, thousands of women served as nurses and in other support roles in the major armies. The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was Russia. From the outset, female recruits either joined up in disguise or were tacitly accepted by their units. The most prominent were a contingent of front-line light cavalry in a Cossack regiment commanded by a female colonel. Others included the celebrated Maria Bochkareva, who was decorated three times and promoted to senior NCO rank, while the New York Times reported that a group of twelve schoolgirls from Moscow had joined up together disguised as young men. In 1917, the Provisional Government raised a number of “Women’s Battalions”, with Bochkareva given an officer’s commission to command the first unit. They fought well, but failed to provide the propaganda value expected of them and were disbanded before the end of the year. In the later Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks employed some women infantry, while female soldiers are also recorded in the White Guard.

World War II involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale; the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable and all the main nations used women in uniform. The great majority performed nursing, clerical or support roles. Over 500,000 had combat roles in anti-aircraft units in Britain and Germany, and front-line units in Russia. Roza Shanina, a Soviet sniper during World War II, credited with 54 confirmed target hits. About 400,000 Soviet women served in front-line duty units, chiefly as medics and nurses.

The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized in the United States by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man’s work.

With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women’s roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving in the military itself, particularly in the Red Army.

In the World War Two era, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces and more than 460 — some sources say the figure is closer to 543 — lost their lives as a result of the war, including 16 from enemy fire. Women became officially recognized as a permanent part of the armed forces with the passing of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

Several hundred thousand women served in combat roles, especially in anti-aircraft units. The U.S. decided not to use women in combat because public opinion would not tolerate it. Despite various, though limited, roles in the armies of past societies, the role of women in the military, particularly in combat, is controversial and it is only recently that women have begun to be given a more prominent role in contemporary armed forces. As increasing numbers of countries begin to expand the role of women in their militaries, the debate continues.


Maj. Lise Bourgon Paper
LER Museum


During the First World War, over 2,300 women served overseas in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. The Canadian Army Women’s Corps, Royal Canadian Airforce Women’s Division and The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (or Wrens) were created during the Second World War. Over 45,000 women enlisted in the Canadian military. They generally worked at what were then considered typically female occupations as support staff in every theatre of the conflict, driving heavy equipment, rigging parachutes, and performing clerical work, telephone operation, laundry duties and cooking.

While eight of every nine women stayed in Canada, those who served overseas, predominantly the nursing sisters, performed their duties with tremendous distinction. By the end of the war, 46 nurses had lost their lives. In May 1942, Canadian nurses became the first in any Allied country to have officer status.

Despite the limitations that women encountered in the male-dominated military, they performed their responsibilities with tremendous dedication and pride, contributing vitally to the Allied victory. They were, however, paid only about two thirds of a man’s salary.

In 1965 the Canadian government decided to allow a maximum of 1,500 women to serve directly in all three branches of its armed forces, and the former “women’s services” were disbanded. In 1970 the government created a set of rules for the armed forces designed to encourage equal opportunities. In 1974 the first woman, Major Wendy Clay, earned her pilot’s wings in the newly integrated Canadian Forces.