July marks the centenary of the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the first time women were formally enrolled in the UK Armed Forces. Back then, women’s roles involved cooking, administration and mechanical work. Today, one hundred years on they stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterpart, with close combat roles in the Royal Marines, Royal Armoured Corps, infantry and Royal Air Force Regiment opening up to them last year.
SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association) enlisted war photographer Robert Wilson to capture a striking ‘Vanity Fair-style’ image of a group of women, from of different ranks and ages (between mid-twenties and 95 years old), who have served in the Forces.
The twelve women photographed include the first transgender woman to serve, who began her career in the Royal Air Force as a man, the highest-ranking woman in the British Army and a 95-year-old veteran who served in World War Two.
Flight Lieutenant Caroline Paige, 57 from Cheshire joined the RAF as a male officer in 1980 as a Fast Jet and Battlefield Helicopter Navigator. In 1999, she became the first transgender officer to transition and serve openly in the UK Armed Forces. She served the following 16 years as a female officer.
When Caroline’s circumstances were revealed, outspoken opinion was negative and occasionally hostile. Instead of hiding away, Caroline stood proud and proved her worth on the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan; eventually the negative opinions gave way to respect and support.
Caroline left the RAF in 2014 as she turned 55, the maximum age she could serve to in the RAF. She is now contracted to support a European Defence Agency Programme, teaching tactics to military helicopter crews and does voluntary work as a Stonewall School Role Model and motivational speaker.