These shoes and this handbag

by Hannah West

Having joined the Royal Navy in 2000, I am always surprised that less than 10 years earlier I would have had to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (only disbanded in 1993) and would not have been permitted to serve at sea (an option only opened to women from 1990). By 2014 the Submarine Service had its first female Officers and last year the ban on women serving in ground close combat roles, including the Royal Marines, was lifted. The last 30 years has seen significant change in the employment of women in the military and yet there are certain idiosyncrasies relating to women’s military service that still remain. On International Women’s day it seemed a good moment to reflect on this evolution and how far women have come – and how far we still have to go.

Having interviewed women who served in the military from the 1970s onwards, one thing that is guaranteed to get a mention every time is uniform. From the veterans of Northern Ireland who wore skirts on patrol as it was believed this feminine silhouette would protect them from IRA attacks to the common experience of body armour not remotely suited to the female body shape. In the week that Caroline Criado Perez’s book, ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ has been published, it seems fitting to be writing about the peculiarities of the military uniform issued to women.

Hannah

I can so clearly remember my first day in the Navy unpacking the giant kit bag next to my bed and pulling on my unfamiliar new blue working trousers and sturdy shirt and experiencing that strong connection between military uniform and identity. Within minutes of arriving on the base our ‘civvy’ clothes had been replaced and we all looked the same. Gradually, I became familiar with all of the many different items of uniform and just got on with using them for their assigned purpose. At the bottom of the bag though, an odd one out, was my issued patent black court shoes and my issued black handbag, and it was remembering these that led me to write this poem:

These shoes and this handbag

These shoes and this handbag
Unworn and unwanted, yet issued
Somehow didn’t fit in with the rest of the kit
Hardly the stuff of hardy seafarers, naval engineers

These shoes and this handbag,
Unchanged but unused, yet issued
A bygone relic
Of wartime telephonists, radio operators

These shoes and this handbag,
Unexpected and unchallenged, yet issued
Amusingly compensating for skirts with no pockets
Yet reminding us of our place, don’t forget

These shoes and this handbag,
Of limited combat utility, were issued
I find out when the men got their weapons
To the women before us who couldn’t bear arms

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