All roles in the British armed forces are now open to women, the government announced on Thursday.
Though women have long served in the military, a ban prevented them from ground close contact roles until 2016, and the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), frontline infantry units, and Royal Marines were off-limits — until now.
The defence secretary Gavin Williamson made the announcement at a land power demonstration on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, which involved some of the first women to join the Royal Armoured Corps after the ban was lifted in 2016.
“I am delighted that from today, for the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not gender," Williamson said. “Opening all combat roles to women will not only make the armed forces a more modern employer, but will ensure we recruit the right person for the right role.”
Williamson said that women already serving in the army will now be able to transfer to infantry roles, and that those not yet serving will be able to apply for those roles in December this year.
Women will also be able to apply for selection into the Royal Marines by the end of the year, with courses beginning at the Royal Marines Commando training centre in Lympstone, in Devon, in early 2019.
I am absolutely delighted to announce that all roles in the military are now open to women. Our Armed Forces will now be determined by ability alone and not gender. This is a truly defining moment in the history of the Armed Forces.— Gavin Williamson MP (@GavinWilliamson) October 25, 2018
There were some critics raising concerns about women joining the frontlines, however. Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, said that even a single woman on the frontline would undermine teamwork and potentially cost lives, according to the Times
But Lance Corporal Kat Dixon, attending the demonstration as one of 35 women either serving or training to join the Royal Armoured Corps, responded to critics such as Kemp by saying that she would “just prove them wrong.”
She added that, in her experience of speaking to others who are opposed to women on the front lines, “by the end of the conversation they’re usually on board.”
Neil Stephenson, a British warrant officer, backed the move on Twitter — and was followed by soldiers both past and present.
If capable then gender is simply irrelevant! Women have been on the front line in every deployment I’ve ever been on! Clerks, Medics (in the thick of serious bloodshed) REME, Engineers...— Neil Stephenson (@bigstevo209) October 25, 2018
@BritishArmy I served 23 years, completed 12 operational tours and have served side by side female soldiers for all of it, although CSS & Support Roles we were frontline FOB and completed the same patrols and training #equals#belonging#Army— Chris (@chrisistheone) October 25, 2018
I am proud of every man and woman that is prepared to sign up and fight for our country regardless of role. It matters not, they are committing to do something that others are simply not prepared to do and that is to fight and win against our enemies 👊🏻#genderisirrelevanthttps://t.co/y2Xe1QjNP8— Glenn Haughton OBE MBA (@ArmySgtMajor) October 26, 2018
Currently just 10% of Britain’s regular personnel and 14% of reservists are female, and the British Army employs 13,000 women.
And while not previoulsy allowed to enter frontline infantry, special forces, or Royal Marines, women have still served as attack helicopter pilots, medics, and engineers.
Other doubters claimed that women would not be able to keep up with the rigorous physical and psychological training that applicants must pass to join the special forces and the Royal Marines.
One tweeted: “The job doesn't get easier in war just because you're a female and the tests should reflect this. Equal rights, not special rights.”
I'm all for that as long as they can pass the rigorous and difficult physical and mental tests that men have to pass. The job doesn't get easier in war just because you're a female and the tests should reflect this. Equal rights, not special rights.— HighlandFreethinkers (@Highlandfreethi) October 25, 2018
“There’s no getting around physiology," added Dixon, speaking to the Guardian about her training. "Women have a different muscle make-up to men.”
“It is challenging but you can do it if you put your mind to it," she said.
Dixon was the first female tank gunner in the Royal Armoured Corps, and currently serves in the Royal Wessex Yeomanry.
Second lieutenant Maddie Hudson, of the Royal Engineers, said: “If you can still complete the same amount of exercises, the same weight, the same tabbing distance, why base it on gender when you could base it on quality?”
Williamson told the Guardian that women could also play an important role in combat units — for example when conducting community engagement where local women would be unwilling to speak with a man.
Asked if she would one day consider becoming chief of the general staff, Hudson said: “I wouldn’t want to do something just to be the first female, I’d want to do something because I’m good at it.”