For centuries, women have joined men on military campaigns. Until the 1850s, women held various unofficial roles in the Army as wives, cooks, nurses, midwives, seamstresses, laundresses and even prostitutes. They lived and worked with a regiment and even travelled abroad with it. These women played a significant role in caring for the physical and emotional wellbeing of soldiers.
At the time, war was strictly seen as man's work. But that didn't stop some women from wanting to take part. There are several well known cases of women disguising themselves in order to fight. However, their experience was far from the norm.
So many women disguised themselves as soldiers to fight that King Charles I issued a proclamation banning women from wearing men’s military clothing.
Christian 'Kit' Cavanagh disguised herself as a male soldier to take part in the campaigns of King William III and the Duke of Marlborough.
In August 1748, Hannah Snell took part in the capture of the French colony of Pondicherry. She also fought in the Battle of Devicotta in June 1749. Snell was wounded several times during her service, but managed to keep her sex a secret.
Several women accompanied the Anglo-Allied army into action at Waterloo. A handful were found dead on the field in the aftermath of the battle.
Dr James Barry had a distinguished career as an army surgeon. On his death, he was discovered to have been a woman.
With the ongoing professionalisation of the Army in the second half of the 19th century, women found themselves increasingly excluded from service. However, one area where women's involvement flourished was through nursing.
Florence Nightingale revolutionised the nursing profession during the Crimean War (1854-56) and established its necessity by caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Professional, trained nurses returned to the battlefield in later conflicts and organisations were created to formalise their work.
Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea with her nurses to care for the wounded. Her work there set the standards for modern nursing.
QAIMNS was established during the Boer War, replacing the Army Nursing Service, which had been established in 1881. Women from across the British Empire served in it.
The FANY, a mounted auxiliary nursing unit, was established in 1907. It acted as a first-aid link between fighting units and field hospitals. As well as running hospitals, FANYs drove ambulances and ran soup kitchens and canteens.
During the early 1900s, several quasi-military volunteer groups for women's work were established including the Women's Emergency Corps, the Women's Forage Corps, the Women's Defence Relief Corps and the Women's Land Army.
The outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) provoked a debate on women's roles in the conflict. The economic strain of the war meant that women were already working on the Home Front in factories. And volunteer groups like the Women's Legion cooked for the troops. Owing to manpower problems, the Army started looking for more formal ways to bring women into the fold.
21 July 1915
Suffragettes marched in London to persuade the authorities to widen women’s roles in the First World War.
The heavy losses suffered during the Battle of the Somme prompted the High Command to consider using women in supporting roles so that men could be freed up for combat.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, headed by Controller Alexandra Chalmers Watson, was formed in response to the manpower crisis. The first women arrived to carry out support duties in France and Belgium on 31 March 1917.
Over 100,000 women had enrolled into military support organisations by the end of the war. The number was far higher than anticipated.
Chalmers Watson resigned after a media storm over supposed moral impropriety among the WAAC in France, and after failing to get equal pay for women.
6 February 1918
The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to women over 30.
In recognition of their hard work and bravery during the Spring Offensive, Queen Mary gave her name to the WAAC. But peacetime cuts led to disbandment in 1921.
QMAAC had been disbanded in 1921, but it inspired the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which was established in September 1938. Women were still not allowed to fight in battle, but once again returned to supporting roles during the Second World War (1939-45).
They were cooks, clerks, drivers, radar operators, telephonists, anti-aircraft gunners, range finders, sound detectors, military police and ammunition inspectors. The Women's Royal Naval Service and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force were also established at that time. Women again went to work on the Home Front too, either in industrial roles, as before, or as part of the Women's Land Army.
The ATS was given full military status, meaning its members were no longer volunteers.
The National Service Act made the conscription of women legal. At first, only single women aged 20-30 were called up. But by mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in war work.
Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) joined the ATS, training at Aldershot as a driver and mechanic.
8 May 1945
By the end of the war, over 190,000 women were members of the ATS.
The Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was formed in 1949, absorbing the remaining troops of the ATS. It eventually included all women serving in the Army except medical and veterinary orderlies, chaplains and nurses.
Between 1949 and 1992, WRAC women served in over 40 trades in operations across the world including Cyprus (1955-59), Northern Ireland (1969-92), the Falklands (1982-83) and the Gulf (1990-91).
1 February 1949
The WRAC was formed as a successor to the ATS.
Ranks in the WRAC were aligned with standard British Army ranks.
The Sex Discrimination Act was introduced. Section 85(4) allowed for the continuing exclusion of women from combat roles.
The WRAC was disbanded, and its non-medical members merged into the new Adjutant General’s Corps.
Following the disbandment of the WRAC in 1992, women were absorbed into the rest of the Army. But they were still restricted to support and medical positions.
Combat roles remained closed to female soldiers until 2016, despite the fact that women had already been present at the front for some time. Six women were killed in action in Iraq (2003-11), and another three in Afghanistan (2001-14). Some women had even served as combat medics and shown bravery under fire.
Much of the debate about female combat centred on the impact of gender integration on battle effectiveness. Many questioned whether female physical and psychological characteristics were suitable for combat, rather than looking at their overall contributions to teams and units.
The exclusion of women from certain roles in the military under the Sex Discrimination Act was challenged unsuccessfully in the European Court of Justice. The same year, Patricia Purves became the first woman to gain the rank of brigadier.
A Ministry of Defence study concluded that women in ground combat roles could adversely affect ‘unit cohesion’.
A Ministry of Defence report concluded that there was no statistically significant evidence in relation to women and unit cohesion. Nevertheless, women remained excluded from close combat roles.
The Women in Close Combat Review paper recommended ending the ban on women in front-line infantry and armoured corps roles.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced all armed forces roles will be open to women.
The ban on women serving in some parts of the Royal Armoured Corps was lifted in July 2016. Role-based training began in November 2016 for women wanting to join the regular army.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all combat roles were open to women, including infantry and special forces units.