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Mission accomplished? Gender Equality in the Military

An analysis and comparison of the institutionalization of Gender Equality in the German Bundeswehr and the United States Armed Forces

Hausarbeit 2007 28 Seiten

Soziologie - Familie, Frauen, Männer, Sexualität, Geschlechter


Index of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Women in the military and the establishment of gender equality: a short historical overview
2.1 Germany: The Bundeswehr
2.2 USA: The United States Armed Forces

3 Why and how has gender equality been institutionalized? Neo-Institutionalism and the approach by Meyer and Rowan
3.1 Germany: The influence of legal and societal pressures
3.2 U.S.A.: Caught between the principle of equality and efficiency

4 The concept of tokenism
4.1 Germany: Women in the Bundeswehr: only symbols allowed to service at arms?
4.2 USA: Female soldiers – more than tokens ?

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography:

1 Introduction

Ever since women have entered the professional world, constructions and notions of gender and gender equality have become relevant – not only do they reflect changes and developments in society but also have had a deep impact on (and the change of) organizations. It seems that gender equality has presented a challenge for all kinds of organizations – but in not other organization, gender has been as central and (as it seems) as difficult to handle as in the military.

The military has always been an organization in which social perceptions and constructions of gender have been prevalent – it is one of the last institutions where the monopole of power has throughout rested with men (Gabbert 2007, 17, Seifert/Eifler 1999, 7). It is an organization where hegemonial masculinity and related concepts such as power, violence and hierarchy have been produced, reproduced and become institutionalized as a dominant structuring feature.

Even though women have always served within (or in the background of) military forces, this service was quite for a long time affected by notions of binary oppositions – the exclusion of women, especially concerning the service at arms, was mainly backed by rather stereotypical and conservative arguments such as women´s natural destination to give life instead of taking it, the mental and phyhsical weakness of women and also the resulting danger of being sexually assaulted; furthermore, the inclusion of women was alleged to destroy the cohesion of the troops (which refers to the concept of “male bonding”, see Seifert/Eifler 1999, 13, Gabbert 2007, 26) and thus the efficiency of the forces. Therefore, the military was quite resistant to change and could maintain its male and masculine hegemonic structure by excluding or restricting women to typically “female” positions such as nurses.

Up to now, this seems to have changed: many women in several countries are serving in the military now and are not confined to certain positions anymore; they are allowed to serve at arms and in combat and thus face the same requirements as well as the same career prospects as their male comrades.[1]

This change is the result of a long-lasting and difficult process which was brought about by several developments; most of all, it reflects overall cultural and societal changes and pressures. Laws and quotas concerning and securing gender equality have been enacted and instances such as equal opportunity commissioners have been established in the military in several countries.

But does this really mean that gender equality in the military is really completely achieved and has become an institution? In how far has gender equality been institutionalized? These questions lead to the central question of this paper: can the “mission” of the institutionalization of gender equality in the military be regarded as “accomplished”?

In order to analyze and to answer this central question, several other questions are involved and have to be taken a closer look at:

For which reasons is gender equality established? Which factors influence or impede the process of institutionalization? How is it organized, how is it represented, and in how far is it really implemented, internalized and realized? And in the end: how is the present state of the institutionalization of gender equality to evaluate?

I argue that the “mission” of gender equality in the military only can be seen as “accomplished” if…

- rules, laws, instances and quotas concerning gender equality were not only established but are also adhered to;
- the requirements and obligations as well the rights and career prospects are the same for women and men;
- there is a balanced relation concerning the positions of men and women in the forces as well as in the hierarchy (especially with regard to leading positions)
- the concept of gender equality has not only been accepted but also been internalized (by society as well as the members of the organization and the organization itself)
- gender equality has been integrated in so far that it has become a part of the organization and is not perceived as something “special” anymore.

It has to be examined in how far these criteria are fulfilled in order to judge if, or at least to which degree gender equality in the military has been institutionalized.

Due to the complexitiy of the topic, this paper shall try to answer the central question by the means of a multiperspective analysis.

First of all, in order to show and to investigate in how far the political and legal system, cultural and societal perceptions, experiences and developments can influence the process of the institutionalization and implementation of gender equality, the military forces of two different countries shall be examined and compared in this paper, namely the German Bundeswehr and the service branches of the United States Armed Forces. Before going into detail, a short historical overview of women in the armed forces in both countries will be given.

In order to analyze how and why – for what reasons, under what circumstances and in which forms - the issue of gender equality was introduced to the German Bundeswehr and the United States Armed Forces, I will draw on the sociological neo-institutionalist approach by Meyer/Rowan (1977) to analyze the influence of insitutional environments and the concepts of legitimacy and efficiency since these aspects seem to have an important influence on institutionalization.

Furthermore, I argue that the degree of institutionalization can be looked at and examined on mainly two levels: the “formal” level comprises rules, laws, instances and quotas concerning gender equality as well as the quantitaive dimension (e.g. numbers of women serving in the military and in leading positions). The “informal” level mainly deals with in how far notions, the perception and comprehension of gender equality have been accepted and internalized in the way that it really has become an institution – even though it is to mention that this level is rather difficult to investigate.

In order to analyze in how far the integration of women into the military has advanced (or maybe was completed), I will refer to concept of tokenism by Moss Kanter and Laws.

The following chapters thus give a little information on the historical background, the driving forces which led to the establishment of gender equality and an analysis which shall help to discover whether women were really integrated to the military or if they still can be considered as tokens.

The conclusion will show if, and in how far the mission of gender equality in the military can be seen as accomplished.

2 Women in the military and the establishment of gender equality: a short historical overview

2.1 Germany: The Bundeswehr

In the course of the rearmament of Germany, the Bundeswehr was created in the year 1955 – women were not admitted to the military service (as soldiers) at that time. Yet, within the administration of the Bundeswehr, many women have worked as civil employees right from the beginning – here a binary opposition of women belonging to the “civil” while men belong the “miltary” becomes obvious and presents an explicit classification. Such classifications for quite a long time dominated the ideas for the structuring of the German society, even though the German Basis Constitutional Law (1949) explicitly contained the declaration that men an women are equal (have equal rights; article 2, paragraph 3).

With reference to article 12 paragraph 3 of the German Basis Constitutional Law (which deals with the freedom of choice of profession), women were explicitly not allowed to serve at arms. They were excluded for a long time because of a “historic” argument which was based on the events of World War II: Women had been “abused” as members of the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht). As a matter of fact, almost 450,000 women served as aides within the German Armed Forces – compared to 18 Mio male soldiers This argument was used repeatedly when debating the question of admitting female soldiers – but even though it was not only specious and contradictory, it was mainly the representation of a very stereotypical and conservative stance since it simply expressed that while women engaged in war are being “abused”, men are simply following their natural determination (Gramann 2006).

With the establishment of the emergency legislation in 1968, article 12 was extended so that women could at least be forced to serve (in case of defense), but yet, they were exempted from armed service.

The year 1975 brought about an important change: women for the first time were admitted to the medical and health service – even though this career was only amenable for approbated physicians, this presented a cornerstone in the history of the Bundeswehr since now women could attain the rank of a surgeon major (a position in the military hierarchy which is equal to a Captain´s). By the year 1988, only 181 female “soldiers” served in such positions (and only 7 of them reached the rank of a surgeon major). Three years later, all service classes (for sergeants) in the medical corps and in the music corps were made accessible for women – yet, armed service was excluded.

The course of the 1990s brought about significant rebounds: not only did the staff shortage increase, but more and more women (and women activicts) pushed for reforms and changes which would allow and enable them to do “normal” military service just as their male comrades. Several lawsuits were filed, but all of them were rejected.

A milestone was set by the case of Tanja Kreil: as a qualified electronics operative electronics, she had applied for a position in the maintenance department of the Bundeswehr. With reference to (the above mentioned) article of the Constitutional Law, her application was turned down – Tanja Kreil went to court since this case presented a violation of the laws of the European Union. In the end, the European Court of Justice decided in favour of Tanja Kreil since preventing women from occupying combat roles in the armed forces was against the sexual equality principles postulated by the EU.

The decision also led to a change of the wording of the Constitutional Law (article 12) which now states that women may not be obliged to armed service.

Finally, with the beginning of the year 2001, all occupations and careers have been opened and all positions within the Bundeswehr have been made accessible for women. Four years later (2005), a law concerning gender mainstreaming respectively gender equality within the Bundeswehr (Soldatinnen- und Soldatengleichstellungsgesetz, SDGleiG), which aims at abolishing discrimination because of gender and fosters the reconciliation of family life and work, came into effect.

But still, compulsory military service exists in Germany – and this obligation holds for men only.

2.2 USA: The United States Armed Forces

The U.S. military, with a total manning level of more than 2.5 Mio, is today the second largest army in the world. It was officially formed in the year 1784. Since the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps, women were officially admitted to the U.S. military already at the beginning of the 20th century – but also the years before, women had served in “typically female” positions such as nurses, secretaries and kitchen helps.

Originally created as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Women's Army Corps (WAC) was established during the Second World War. According to women ´s memorial, about 400,000 women served in it, and for the first time, they were not restricted to the position of a nurse anymore but also served in uniforms – this development already caused frictions among the male soldiers, but seems to have been fostered or even a necessitiy because of a shortage of staff. In the year 1970, the first women were given the rank of a General (namely Anna Mae Hays, commander of the Army Nurse Corps and Elizabeth P. Hoisington, commander of the WAC) and by the year 1978, all 4 service branches of the U.S. military had appointed women to a General´s rank.

Since 1973, the United States Armed Forces are a professional (all-volunteer) army. Yet, even though women were officially admitted, they were exluded from armed service by the means of a no combat clause which somehow controlled and determined which branches and sections were accessible for women and which were not; women were generally exluded from combat-missions – still, the definition and interpretation of the word combat varied and thus led to quite different and contradictory opportunities and restrictions for women (especially concerning higher positions such as pilots).

This not clearly defined rule led to ambivalent situations and once more expressed the ideological binary opposition of men being determined to fight whereas women are determined to support and to perform rather civil tasks. After the Gulf War 1991 this rule was modified and changed to the Risk Rule which then allowed women in the U.S. military to do combat-related jobs (even though within no-combat units) . It was meant to save women from getting involved in combats and to open more positions for women at the same time. Yet, it became more and more difficult to separate between save and dangerous actions - female soldiers serving in no-combat units got killed which made women in the U.S. military push for their right to participate in combat. The Risk Rule was finally replaced by the Ground Combat Rule which women only excluded from direct ground combat and which paved the way to the opening of more positions and occupations for ative duty women ( see Gabbert 2007, 79 ff).

Today, according to women´s memorial, “More than 90% of all career fields in the armed forces are now open to women” (2006).

As a nation of immigrants with a huge ethinc diversity of its population, the U.S. American society always had to deal with questions of equality and integration. For quite a long time, African-Americans presented the largest minority within the U.S. American society as well as the armed forces. Increasing tensions in the military between white and African-American soldiers finally led to the creation of the the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) in 1971. Since a growing number of women enlisted and thus another minority entered the forces, questions of sexism and gender equality arose – the DRRI was changed to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) in 1979. Since then, regular courses questions of discrimination and equal opportunities and trainings dealing with these aspects have become an integrated part of the organizational structure of the U.S. Armed Forces.[2]

3 Why and how has gender equality been institutionalized? Neo-Institutionalism and the approach by Meyer and Rowan

Neo-Institutionalist approaches are quite uselful regarding the topic of this paper since in contrast to “original” institutionalist approaches, they make it possible to analyze and to explain change institutions and organizations (Hasse-Krücken, andere). It is thus possible to analyze an organization´s reaction to changes in environmental respectively surrounding conditions. The military can be considered as a societal organization – an organization (and maybe the only) which for quite a long time was built up on the institution of hegemonic masculinity (Gabbert 2007, 13)– the introduction of gender equality thus should have presented a challenge to this concept and thus to the organization (and its change) as a whole.

Within the science of sociology, neo-institutionalism is not presented and recognized as one coherent theory but consists of many different theoretical strands.


[1] Even though this does not count for all countries, Kümmel (2005) states that in the year 2004, only 5 out of 26 NATO-members still did have restrictions for women concerning the service at arms respectively combat.

[2] For a more detailed account, see chapters 3.2. and 4.2.


ISBN (Buch)
425 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Mission Gender Equality Military German Bundeswehr United States Armed Forces




Titel: Mission accomplished? Gender Equality in the Military