Updated: 26-Mar-2002 Committee on Women in NATO Forces

Special Edition



The first NATO Conference of Senior Service Women Officers of the Alliance took place in Copenhagen in June 1961. It was organised by the Danish Atlantic Association as a first step to discuss the possibility of increasing co-operation on matters pertaining to the status and employment of women in the military forces of the Alliance. At the end of this conference, the delegates (representing Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States) adopted a resolution agreeing on the desirability of holding future conferences at regular intervals and expressing the hope that the appropriate NATO and national authorities would consider employing women more widely within their Services in the interest of NATO as a whole. In 1965, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and the NATO Defence College visited NATO Headquarters which provided an opportunity to renew contacts and define an additional plan of action. This subsequently led to a Director's Conference of Senior Women Officers convened by the NATO Information Service in 1966, with the participation of seven NATO member countries.

During the 1973 Conference of Senior Service Women Officers, significant progress was made. Nine countries, including, for the first time, representatives from the Nursing Service, participated in the conference, which was sponsored by the NATO Information Service. The delegates, representing 28 different women's services and over 100 000 servicewomen, adopted a resolution agreeing that women should have the opportunity to serve in all job specialities, excluding combat, where it was decided that employment should be determined by national policy. Additionally, a recommendation was made to appoint an ad hoc committee tasked with developing the goals and objectives for the Alliance's women service organisations. This soon became a reality; Colonel Martensen-Larsen from Denmark was appointed the first Chairman and each delegation nominated a national representative to serve on the committee.

Minister of Defence Germany 1975, Dr H.C. Georg Leber, together with the first (five) female soldiers in the Bunderswehr.

During the 1970's, the work of the committee progressed steadily. At the 1975 London Conference, delegates were briefed by representatives from Belgium, which was beginning to recruit women into its Armed Services and representatives from the Federal Republic of Germany also briefed, which was preparing to introduce specialist women medical officers into the Bundeswehr.

On July 19, 1976, in Document MC 249, the Military Committee formally recognised the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces (CWINF). Belgium and the Federal Republic of Germany became full members of the Committee during the 1977 conference held at NATO Headquarters. At the 1979 conference, Greece and Italy took part for the first time and the Committee revised its Terms of Reference to take into account the Committee's official military status.

In 1985, Spain participated in a conference of the Committee for the first time and was joined by 57 other participants from thirteen NATO countries to complete a much-needed revision of the Committee's Terms of Reference and to modify a resolution on the employment of women in NATO Forces. In 1987, Canada was able to share notes on the advancements made in its own integration program, which included the promotion of its first female general Officer, Brigadier General Sheila Hellstrom, and the expansion of the role of women in the Canadian Armed Forces in general.

In 1996, a former Chairperson of the Committee, Major General Marcelite Harris, USAF, advocated, in co-operation with the Director of International Military Staff, for a full-time secretariat position for the Committee. Because only temporary administrative support was being provided for the Committee, there was a lack of continuity in its goals and objectives. In March 1997, NATO's Military Committee approved the establishment of an advisory office on Women in the NATO Forces within the International Military Staff. The initial intention was to operate the office on a trial basis for up to three years in order to determine whether or not there was a continued requirement for such an office. The Office on Women in the NATO Forces was formally opened in 1998 and was initially staffed by two United States Air Force Members: Major Sarah Garcia and Master Sergeant Michele Tyler. The challenge of establishing a new office in such a large organisation was successfully met and it proved to be an effective liaison with the Military Representatives and their staff. Additionally, the new office provided the much-needed continuity to better manage and achieve the Committee's goals and objectives.
Current data on serving women in the Alliance (see charts below) show the progress that has been made over time. In 1961, the Alliance nations had 30,000 Servicewomen under their flag. Today, they are over 285,000 service women on full-time duty.

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