‘I expected to take on the enemy… not be knifed in the back’: Senior female officer who quit after 37 years of misogyny reveals how women were classified as ‘sluts or frigid’ and made to march to
The Stripper theme tune
Our first attempt at parade was an awkward shuffle. Hardly surprising when our boots were two or even three sizes too big for us.
The smallest the British Army had was a size seven, we were told, but not one of us had feet that big, so until some could be specially made, we were advised to wear multiple pairs of socks and make do.
The year was 1983 and we were the first women to be admitted to Sandhurst, the elite Royal Military Academy where all officers in the British Army receive their initial training.
For more than 30 years I would make the British Army my life, and by the end of that time, I was a lieutenant colonel in the Intelligence Corps, with a proud service record and an OBE for having overseen the whole-scale restructuring of the Army’s military intelligence
If it seems shocking that no one had given a moment’s thought to the basic fact that women have smaller feet than men, back then it was very much par for the course.
The uniform, designed for men, was the wrong shape and too big. Hair had to be short or long enough to put up, and yet wearing a bun would make the helmet perch forward and cover your eyes. Later, I was disciplined for cutting my hair too short.
On matters of etiquette, confusion reigned. We were told not to wear make-up in uniform, but in the evenings, after long hours training, we were admonished for not wearing make-up as we didn’t look ‘feminine’ enough.
Even our accommodation wasn’t ready, and we had to be driven in every day from rooms eight miles away in Camberley.
Perhaps I should have taken all this as a sign of the troubles ahead. But I was just 18 — the second youngest of our group of 38 — and fresh out of an all-girls school in Cheltenham. As I signed up, I wasn’t looking to make a big statement.
With hindsight, I can see that equality was on the march and we were at the cutting edge of it, but as a sporty teenager who liked a lot of the activities more commonly associated with boys — and looked to warrior Princess Leia as a role model — I was just wildly excited to be there.
The uniform, designed for men, was the wrong shape and too big. Hair had to be short or long enough to put up, and yet wearing a bun would make the helmet perch forward and cover your eyes
And I don’t want to come across as bitter in any way. The Army offered me some of the best moments of my life, as well as some of the worst. At its best, it is an addictively exciting life. A family. And I belonged.
Of course, I was naïve. For more than 30 years I would make the British Army my life, and by the end of that time, I was a lieutenant colonel in the Intelligence Corps, with a proud service record and an OBE for having overseen the whole-scale restructuring of the Army’s military intelligence.
And yet I also encountered persistent misogyny and sexism and saw, over and over, talented women held back because of it.
And I don’t just mean in the Eighties, when society was structured in a very different way and you might have expected a few dubious jokes and a certain amount of condescension towards women. No, I mean today. Now.
That is why I decided to write a book about my experience — in the hope that by speaking up, change will come for those women who, like me, give their all to an institution that, even in the 21st century, does not value them.
I’ve spoken to many military women while writing it, and their view is that the Army today, far from doing away with the glass ceiling, is re-glazing it. The bias is simply more subtle because it has moved undercover.
While many men in the military are both good people and professional at work, toxic pockets of poor behaviour still cause difficulties. The influence of the Old Boys’ Network — of Eton, of Masonic handshakes — still persists, and in my view explains why the Army is struggling to recruit and retain women in 2020.
Back in 1983, it was made fairly clear to us that many in the Army did not really want us. Among the senior officers at Sandhurst there was a hardcore group of what I call ‘Red-Lighters’, who wanted to stop the progress of women altogether.
We were denied attendance at firepower demonstrations, for example, as ‘it would be all about tanks and armour and women would probably be bored’. We were told never to talk about ‘women’s problems’ and often heard men tell derogatory jokes.
At times we were hidden from the view of the Commandant or given menial tasks the men weren’t expected to do, like cleaning the classrooms after the men were allowed to leave.
During parade rehearsals, some of them changed our marching tunes to The Stripper theme. For relaxation, I joined the karate club and played hockey. The memo when we finally got permission to play for the men’s hockey team (making us the first women to play sport for Sandhurst), was ‘when you turn up, wear a short skirt’.
It was my first taste of being treated as second class simply because of my gender, and the first time it dawned on me that to change the rules you need to become a rule-maker.
At 18, I didn’t feel angry about sexism; I think I was simply confused about why some men would not accept me for what I was.
One of the other women recorded in her diary that the men at Sandhurst had been instructed (by a full-on Red-Lighter) not to talk to the women, on the basis that if we were not made welcome, it might be possible to reverse the decision to have women admitted.
Worst of all were the military lessons, delivered by male officers using a slide deck and a projector. One in ten of those slides featured a photo of a naked woman, which was apparently the most effective way to keep sleep-deprived male students awake. We were told the Army was ‘a man’s world, so we might as well get used to seeing these images’, and it was only when we started to leave pictures of naked men around that the offending slides were removed.
Despite it all, on April 6, 1984, 30 of us graduated to a fanfare of newspaper headlines. Eight of our 38 had dropped out. It was a testament to our determination that there weren’t more. But the challenges we faced did not let up. During my career in the Army, as a regular and in the reserves, and for 20 years with the Intelligence Corps, I encountered them time and time again. So did every military woman I know.
On postings abroad, I learned to leave functions at the ‘right time’ to avoid drunken propositions, particularly from senior officers. I had flowers left on my bed, was sent love-notes and was often followed back to my room.
Once, I was trapped in the corridor by a senior officer and, unable to talk my way out of his advances, used my karate skills to knock him down. In the morning he had a black eye, but neither of us said a word. Complaining was not the Army way.
Another time, while working as a ski instructor for an infantry unit, I was the only serving woman in camp. There was nowhere to go in the evenings, so I was invited to join the men in the bar, but each night I declined and it became increasingly tense, with comments like ‘frigid’ being made.
Today, it’s assumed that misogyny and bigotry are things of the past, but all women in the Army know that’s not true. It surfaces after alcohol, on military online forums (where cries for the rape, murder and compulsory subordination of women are surprisingly common) or in misogynist ‘safe spaces’, like some of the infantry units.
When I was serving, I often heard bigoted voices in open-plan offices, while I was sitting out of sight.
Only recently, at a meeting in the corridors of the military, one man said to another who was having a bit of a meltdown: ‘Dry your eyes, Princess.’ All the women in the room rolled their eyes at this tired old association between women and histrionics.
Yes, that seems a minor matter, but when the bigotry happens day in and day out, it is a pebble in the shoe — it hobbles you.
Forgetting to let you speak in a meeting, not being invited for drinks with the men . . . these and a thousand other slights will handicap a career, even kill it.
In 2017, I read a stream of stories from Army women, mostly officers, which appeared in a closed online forum. Some of those women have achieved outstanding things, yet were subjected to the same casual bias that said, loud and clear: ‘You are nothing.’
Here’s one of the comments (all are reproduced with consent), from a woman who is a captain: ‘When I arrived at the unit, I was told it was my job to take the minutes at meetings, since the men had more important things to do. I spoke to the CO and he told me not to make a fuss.’
Here’s another from a woman who is a private: ‘Where I was posted, women were classified by the corporals as sluts or frigid — the “bike or dyke” classification, and there was little difference between the two.’
And from a female Royal Engineers officer: ‘There was a sign up as I entered the bar. It said “Officers Only”, so I went in and the conversations stopped.
‘The president of the mess committee came over and guided me out. He apologised: “I know you are serving, but this room is just for real officers, I’m sure you understand”.’
The former head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, above, said recently: ‘I want every woman in the country to know the service is open to them. Women need to see they have equal opportunities throughout the organisation.’ We must aim our battles at misogyny, not at men
Such behaviour is plainly intolerable. Enemy attacks are an acceptable risk; a knife between the shoulder blades from a colleague is not.
I look at what women are achieving now — at the Army’s 2018 all-women Ice Maidens team, who walked solo across Antarctica; at the first ever female general; women in combat roles and commanding units; women training anti-poaching squads in Africa — and it reminds me how far we have come. Just imagine what we could do if we had a level playing field.
The waste of talent is frustrating. Like me, many women are quite comfortable in what used to be traditionally male roles — defender of the people, leader, intelligencer, explorer. It’s shocking they are so rarely given the opportunity to prove it.
I was an intelligence officer during the Iraq war of 2003 and later heavily involved at a command level in what was known as Army 2020, the strategic review that mandated a broad restructuring of the Army. But then my career hit a block — and watching male colleagues pip me to the post time and again was infuriating.
But there is hope: plenty of good men aren’t threatened by competition. The former head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, said recently: ‘I want every woman in the country to know the service is open to them. Women need to see they have equal opportunities throughout the organisation.’
We must aim our battles at misogyny, not at men.
How will we know when we have won this fight? When women no longer have to prove themselves anew each time we are posted. When the Army is willing to open its promotion system to external scrutiny, and women are promoted at the same pace as men.
My Army career officially came to an end in February this year, but in truth it was over by the end of 2017.
That’s when I realised that, after more than a year of applying for promotion, I wasn’t going to get it. It was a moment of real grief.
It was then that I decided I had to speak up — and so I submitted a complaint against what I felt was unfair treatment, which is still wending its way slowly through Army procedures.
Since announcing the publication of my book, I have been inundated with emails from current and former servicewomen, detailing allegations from the Seventies to the present day, including rape and sexual assault.
When contacted about this article, an Army spokesperson said: ‘The Army takes all allegations of mistreatment very seriously and we encourage any allegation of unacceptable behaviour to be raised to the attention of the Chain of Command to be investigated accordingly.
‘The Army has changed significantly in the past 40 years, and today woman are able to serve with pride worldwide, in all roles and ranks.
‘We want the best people to serve with us, regardless of sex, ethnicity or gender.’
For women, I believe there is a wind of change blowing. It’s what we thought in the 1980s back at Sandhurst, but today I’m convinced this change is meaningful.
At last women are ready to speak up. I have spoken up more in the past 12 months than in the whole of the previous 12 years. It’s a tough thing to do, but believe me, it feels good.
Adapted by Alison Roberts from Forewarned: A Woman At War . . . With The Military System by Diane Allen, published by Cranthorpe Millner on Tuesday at £12.99.
© Diane Allen 2020