Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

Sisters in arms celebrate 60 years

Women in the WRAC in 1958

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

With its motto "Gentle in manner, resolute in deed", it was apparent the first regular army corps for women was very different to its male equivalent.

In fact, when the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), the successor to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), was established 60 years ago this week, it made a conscious effort to emphasise women would not have to forfeit their femininity to join its ranks.

Wartime recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Service
The ATS became the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1949

The slogan "Two sides of an exciting life" was intentionally used to show how women could combine practical work and glamour, says Dr Lucy Noakes, author of Women in the British Army and senior lecturer at the University of Brighton.

"Early recruitment campaigns tried to address the fact that women in the Army could also be feminine - you could do something exciting but also socialise and meet eligible officers," she says.

British designer Norman Hartnell, dressmaker to the Royal Family, was even recruited to create a uniform that would appeal to women of the time.

The retention of femininity was appreciated by 80-year-old WRAC veteran Marie Hemmings who admits she still finds it difficult seeing modern-day female recruits carrying weapons.

"I would rather be treated like a lady. Going to the frontline would frighten me to death. There was demarcation and that is the way it should be," she says.

'Not sporty'

Mrs Hemmings, who began her career in 1952 with the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, joined WRAC two years later and went on to serve as a clerk across the UK, being promoted first to lance corporal, on to sergeant and then to warrant officer.

Marie Hemmings

Even to this day, I would do it all again. I loved it
Marie Hemmings
WRAC veteran

She and her female colleagues were often bombarded by what she calls "nasty phone calls" from men, but overall she remembers being happy with her supporting role in the WRAC, particularly because she didn't feel much of an action girl.

"You see, I wasn't very sporty - I played hockey once and had to stop and sit down and have a smoke!" exclaims Mrs Hemmings, who was later appointed MBE.

Highlights of her career included catching sight of Princess Alexandra on her wedding day in London while on duty and spending two years on a posting to Singapore.

But after more than 20 years each in the Army, Mrs Hemmings and her late husband John finally left in 1978 to run a cafe in Aldershot. Now, three decades on and living in Blackpool, she still looks back fondly at her time in the service.

"I never miss a reunion. They were great times and I made friends for life. Even to this day, I would do it all again. I loved it."

WRAC women trying on tights
Femininity was still important to many women in the early years of the WRAC

But the British army in 2009 is a somewhat different place to that experienced by Mrs Hemmings.

Latest government figures show there are now 17,900 women in the armed services. The current 7,000 trained female army recruits use weapons and are able to do 71% of jobs on offer, with those roles where the primary duty is "to close with and kill the enemy" are out of bounds.

Yet this increased equality and the nature of modern warfare has brought growing levels of danger for women in the services - brutally highlighted by the deaths of Flt Lt Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill in Basra in 2006 and Cpl Sarah Bryant in Afghanistan in June last year.

'One of lads'

One of those who recognises the risks attached to being a woman in the British army in the 21st Century is 28-year-old Sgt Angharad Louise Davies.

During her nine-year career she has been deployed to Cyprus and Iraq and could be sent to Afghanistan in 2011.

1917: Women's Auxiliary Army Corp (WAAC) established
1921: WAAC disbanded
1938: Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) established
1949: ATS replaced by Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC). Women come under Army Act for first time
1992: WRAC and the Army amalgamated
Source: WRAC Association, Ministry of Defence

But unlike Mrs Hemmings, Sgt Davies, now with 39 Regiment, Royal Artillery, based in Newcastle, relishes not being treated differently to male colleagues.

"I have never once felt there was anything I couldn't do as a female. They treat me as one of the lads," she says.

Sgt Davies also believes she may even earn more respect from troops as a female because she speaks to people "rather than screams and shouts".

However, Sgt Davies, originally from Swansea, admits she did not have a childhood ambition of joining up.

"I have never been a tom-boy, climbing trees or anything - so it came as a bit of a shock to my mother when I told her," she recalls.

She also confesses she found the first four weeks of training gruelling because "getting shouted at all the time was a bit of a shock". But, having conquered the physical side of Army life, she went on to study signals and communications and climbed the ranks.

Yet, despite her success, when asked if she wants to see women take on an even greater role in the Army, such as in close combat, Sgt Davies is adamant things should remain as they are.

Women in the armed forces
Latest figures show there are 17,900 women in the UK armed forces

"I don't think it will change or should change," she says. "When you look at the bigger picture of a female out on patrol I don't think it's right.

"For example, if a man goes down his colleagues would shoot the enemy first and then treat him.

"But if a woman goes down the reaction would be different, I think they would feel they had to treat her first - be more protective."

However, others take a different view and believe women will achieve ever-greater levels of equality.

Dr Noakes argues that, while it has taken a while for changes in the Army to occur in the past because of the service's "cultural conservatism", greater equality for women may come in time.

"Probably - but slowly - because it has changed so much in the past," she says.

Print Sponsor

Women in the line of fire
09 May 06 |  UK

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