Are Women in the Military Being Listened to? An exploration of crucial reforms currently being considered in British, Canadian and US armed forces
Julie Wheelwright, author of Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millennium (Osprey, 2020), reflects on the #MilitaryMeToo and on why military women need to tell their story to bring about change.
When Diane Allen, a retired Lt-Colonel of the British Army, writes about the importance of encouraging military women to give voice to their experiences, she knows exactly what this means. Allen’s call-to-arms in an interview on SkyNews in May 2020 generated a powerful response from British servicewomen who catalogue the ways in which, despite the opening of all professional military trades to women, they still experience a profound sense of ‘anti-belonging’. Whether it takes the form of low-level sexist comments, the lack of promotion, the failure to take seriously complaints about bullying, sexual harassment and even sexual assault, it gives women the same message: you’re not wanted.
Although the British military has made successive attempts to understand these problems producing seven key reports since 1995, including the 2019 Wigston Report on ‘Inappropriate Behaviours’, the recent House of Commons Defence select committee report on ‘Women in the Armed Forces’ is unique . Thanks to the efforts of its chair, MP Sarah Atherton, a gagging order preventing serving women from taking part has been lifted. Finally, they can speak, and they have a lot to say.
Among the flood of emails Allen received following her television interview and the publication of her memoir, Forewarned: Tales of a Woman at War . . . With the Military System, which both kick-started the #MilitaryMeToo movement, were women who wanted to go public abouts their experience.  Allen included in her report to the Women in the Armed Forces in January 2021, poignant comments from those currently serving, those who felt driven out, and those whose lives have been irreparably damaged. A small number of men and relatives of servicewomen also recounted negative experiences.
Here are just a few of those voices that document the extent of sexual harassment and assault within the British military:
‘I was taped when on overseas operations – the investigation was a farce – I was actually cross-examined by my attacker.’
‘I was one of the first female cadet instructors – bullied, abused and hounded out. I live with the scars.’
‘I was sexually harassed in Germany – I did complain – very poor outcome. I have never made my peace.’
‘I was raped during trade training – accused was found not guilty on a technicality – for the rest of my career I was “the slag who cried rape”.’
While Allen was gathering these testimonies on her website, Forewarned, Atherton was also inundated once the Women in the Armed Forces opened its call for evidence. ‘We had 80 responses in the first hour alone,’ she told The House Magazine in June 2021, ‘I thought we would get about 600 overall. We didn’t do a major media push particularly, but the women told us that they had been waiting ten, even 15 years to speak out. They’d never had the opportunity before.’  The oldest person was in her 70s, so the inquiry was able to shed light on women’s experiences going back five decades.
While the numbers of respondents giving testimony about historic and current abuse, MPs on the sub-committee which met between January and March 2021, were also hearing that the complaints’ procedure was deeply flawed. Tobias Ellwood MP, in testimony to the Defence Sub-Committee on 27 April 2021, summarised the experience of female junior officers who reported a complaint to a senior officer and were told to ‘suck it up’.  While he described a complaints procedure that failed because servicewomen don’t trust it, Atherton said the establishment of a Service Complaints Ombudsman in 2015, was simply the military ‘marking [its] own homework’. 
At the same session, Stuart Anderson MP, provided evidence from a serving soldier that further illustrates this lack of trust. ‘“If I was a male soldier, I probably would not [make a complaint]. Being a woman, no chance. Being someone from a black or Asian community and specifically a woman, forget it. I would never consider it.”’  Yet the need for an appropriate and effective system is clear with respondents to Allen’s Forewarnedwebsite recording that sexual harassment and assault is rife within the British armed forces: 95% reported some unwelcome attention sometimes during the working day but especially at social events.
In addition to varying levels of sexual and psychological abuse, serving women experience other expressions of ‘anti-belonging’ through training regimes designed specifically for men which lead to more injuries, as well as equipment and medical services which fail to consider women’s needs. Richard Drax, MP, also testifying at the April 2021 session, providing an example from a witness who, ‘explained that, even with the small protection [a tactical vest], it dropped down below her waist, so that when she walked it damaged the back of her calves.’  Such gaps in provision extend to lack of sanitary hygiene products, weapons that are unsuitable for women, and inadequate or ill-fitting clothing or boots.
A Wider Movement for Change Within Military Culture
Atherton’s inquiry here in the UK coincides with military women in other nations going public about the abuse they still encounter, despite the opening of military occupations. Like their British counterparts, they describe broken complaints procedures where victims are ignored, threatened or even punished, and military leaders who refuse take their concerns seriously. In Canada, several high-profile scandals involving high-ranking military officials led to multiple public disclosures which began with the resignation of Afghan combat veteran Lt Colonel Eleanor Taylor on 16 March 2021. Taylor, who was the first woman to command an infantry company in a war zone and later joined Canada’s elite special forces unit, said on social media that she was ‘disgusted’ but not surprised by ongoing reports of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). “I am also certain that the scope of the problem has yet to be exposed. Throughout my career, I have observed insidious and inappropriate use of power for sexual exploitation.” 
Taylor referred to the country’s two most senior military leaders — former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and his replacement, Admiral Art McDonald — who are currently under investigation over separate allegations of sexual misconduct. She describes her sense of being made complicit in her own and other women’s abuse for the sake of unit cohesion: “I have been both a victim of, and participant in, this damaging cycle of silence, and I am proud of neither.” Taylor believed that going public with her anger over the treatment of these women and resigning from the CAF, ‘was the most powerful thing I could do.’ 
Leah West, a former CAF armoured officer, describes a pattern familiar in Britain’s forces. In 2015, senior leadership within the CAF failed to implement recommendations made by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps to improve its dire record on sexual misconduct. In May 2021, West says that ‘Despite years of clear evidence that sexual misconduct is rampant in our military’s culture, nothing has changed . . . For decades, women who are prepared to sacrifice everything to defend this country . . . have effectively been told that they aren’t worthy of the same respect as their male counterparts.’ West’s conclusion chimes with Allen and Atherton’s: by ignoring women’s serious complaints, military leaders suggest that they don’t consider their contribution worthy of making badly needed reforms. And just as the Women in the Armed Forces report has emboldened Britain’s servicewomen to speak out, Taylor’s public disgust with the CAF has resonated with Canadians. According to West, the servicewomen she spoke with, ‘all express one overwhelming sentiment: seething rage.’ It is this anger, she believes, that will fuel the necessary change within military culture. 
South of Canada’s border in the United States, campaigners to remove serious crimes, including sexual assault and murder from the military chain of command, are finally gaining sufficient bipartisan support for legal changes. Public attention was drawn to its own flawed complaints system after US Army specialist Vanessa Guillen, who had told her family she was being sexually harassed by a superior, was murdered in April 2020, at Fort Hood, Texas. This appalling case led to a major investigation that found ‘scores of soldiers had died by homicide and suicide’ at Fort Hood, where women were ‘vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracised and re-victimised’. In June 2021, a RAND Arroyo study found that servicewomen at the Texas base had a far higher risk of sexual assault than the average woman in the army. These findings, among others, have supported Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s long campaign for moving the complaints system to an independent body which is exactly what Allen is campaigning for in the UK.  Endorsing the removal of investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the control of commanders, President Biden said on 2 July 2021: ‘Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity. And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the US military and to our national defence.’ 
These campaigns for reform of the complaints and service justice systems and better support for serving and retired servicewomen, have been galvanised by women’s willingness to speak in public. As women rise through the military ranks, they are breaking the silence that has surrounded their experiences of ‘anti-belonging’. Perhaps the need has become more pressing as the rise in female recruits and women’s entry into combat roles, may have created a backlash. As political scientists Fiona MacDonald and Stephanie Paterson have written, efforts to create change through increased numbers can lead to a sense of ‘aggrieved entitlement’ which can further entrench cultures of exclusion.  They cite research into military and paramilitary organisations that demonstrate that as more women enter male-dominated and masculinised professions, the rates of sexual assault, harassment and violence in those professions often increase. Sandra Sidi, who served as an analyst for the US army in Iraq, encapsulates the sense that, ‘for women, fending off unwanted male attention is the job that never ends.’ 
Perhaps we have finally entered an historic moment for serving women where listening, and supporting them to document their experiences, can be a meaningful step towards creating policy that reflects their actual needs. Atherton’s recently report on Women in the Armed Forces, makes a significant contribution towards that necessary conversation. As part of the SHaME project, Diane Allen and I will, in the coming months, be taking this further by supporting servicewomen to tell their stories, to connect with others, and to speak openly about what needs to change and why. We hope that this can form a record for future historians, social policy researchers and policy makers interested in British military women’s historic and current experiences. With this unique collaboration we are confident that these powerful testimonies will provide further evidence about the need for reform of the complaints’ service, systemic sexism among military leaders, the lack of service provisions, and of specialist veterans’ services for women.
 ‘Report on Inappropriate Behaviours’, 15 July 2019. Ministry of Defence. [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/817838/20190607_Defence_Report_Inappropriate_Behaviours_Final_ZKL.pdf]
 Allen, D. (2020) Forewarned: Tales of a Woman at War . . . With the Military System. (Cambridge: Cranthorpe Millner).
 Allen, D. ‘Evidence to House of Commons Defence Select Committee – Women in the Armed Forces’, 30 January 2021.
 Proctor, K. ‘The Enemy Within’, The House Magazine. Vol. 1705. 28 June 2021, pp. 22-23. [https://library.myebook.com/thehouse/the-house-magazine-issue-1705-28-june-2021/3447]
 ‘Defence Sub-Committee. Oral Evidence: Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 1047. 27 April 2021. [Q152]
 Ibid [Q160]
 Ibid [Q164]
 ‘Defence Sub-Committee. Oral Evidence: Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 1047. 27 April 2021.[Q113]
Wheelwright, Julie, Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millennium (Osprey 2020).