Fortune has smiled over the fight for women’s military equality in an unlikely place, the austerity-battered armed forces of the United Kingdom. Headlines over the past year have been dominated by signing ceremonies ending bureaucratic hurdles including the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) and Australia offering combat roles to women. In Britain, a serendipitous constellation of administrative, merit-based, and organic advancement may make Britain’s military the new poster-child of gender-equality: the lifting of a ban on female submariners, the first female RN commander of a major warship, and the first female soldier to kill an enemy in combat.
These moves are neither unique nor historic firsts for the world’s militaries. With that said they do point to a more organic methodology by which women are making progress for gender equality. In the case of the UK, a mix of administrative, merit-based, and ‘trial-by-fire’ moments have given a sudden boost to women hoping to serve their countries in any capacity.
Lifting the ban on female submariners is part of a larger trend. The Royal Navy joins the ranks of the US, Australian, Canadian, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian navies in allowing women to serve.
Further, Britain is not the first to grant a warship command to a woman. In 1998 CDR Maureen A. Farren was the first woman to command a USN combatant ship, the USS Mount Vernon. In 2010 Rear Admiral Nora Tyson became the first female commander of a Carrier Strike Group and CDR Sara Joyner was the first female commander of a Carrier Air Wing*. Perhaps a sign of true equality within the USN, a female commander was even fired from her command of the USS Cowpens for “cruelty and mistreatment” aboard her 400-person ship. Canada gave its first major warship command to a female in 2009 to CDR Josee Kurtz aboard the HMCS Halifax.
Lastly, women have been a deadly component of the battlefield for decades. There are many historical examples, including the deadly efficiency of female Soviet Snipers, and the self-motivated French Resistance fighter Nancy Wake who led attacks against Gestapo HQs and killed an SS officer with her bare hands so he could not raise the alarm of a raid.
However, the UK has been the home of a sudden boost of momentum for the cause of gender-equality in armed forces around the world, and they deserved the highlight.
*A rundown of women’s milestones in the US Navy can be found here.