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The early 1990s saw the disbanding of the separate women’s services of the UK Armed Forces, coincident with the opening of operational military roles to women, from serving at sea to flying operational aircraft. This period has been framed as a ‘pioneering era of firsts’, a culmination of a generalised, apparently linear, trajectory of women’s integration into the Armed Forces, shaping the identity of the modern British servicewoman. Of course, women exist in the annals of military history before this time, but they are presented either as exceptional individuals or contained to support functions in nursing or logistics. The modern Armed Forces have become disconnected from the comprehensive, long and yet invisible ‘front line’ story of women’s military history.

This talk is not about recovering these forgotten histories - there are many examples of projects underway in relation to specific units or campaigns - but about exploring the oppressive function of marginalising them from the consciousness of the modern Armed Forces. We will consider what constitutes ‘military history’ and examines the oppressive function of a selectively gendered military history on the modern Armed Forces. Through three discontinuities, the talk exposes how understanding what had come before undermines the exceptionalising of the ‘pioneering era of firsts’ and embeds servicewomen in a more comprehensive military history.

Military culture is shaped by history and tradition embodied by ceremony, drill, uniform and music and yet military culture imbues a gendered power dynamic that inculcates toxic behaviours. Current attempts to address inappropriate behaviours will fail if they do not acknowledge and redress the marginalization of women’s military history from the construction of modern military culture. This event will examine the relationship between the lifting of the ban on Women in Ground Close Combat in 2018 and the women in command of Royal Irish Regiment infantry companies in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s; the women’s outreach programmes during the 1950s Malaya Emergency and the Human Security Advisers in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014; and the women of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War and female covert operators in Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards.

Speaker biography:

Dr Hannah West is an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cardiff University where she works on gender, military power and counterinsurgency using creative methodologies. She is published in the RUSI Journal; Small Wars and Insurgencies; Critical Military Studies and the Journal of War and Culture Studies. Hannah is a former Royal Navy Air Engineer and Founder and Chair of the Defence Research Network.

Event details

Dockrill Room
King's Building
Strand Campus, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS