Women and the Royal Navy, Pioneers to Professionals

Women and the Royal Navy: Pioneers to Professionals

‘Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy’ exhibition reveals the impact of women’s involvement from the 17th century onwards, during both world wars, the Cold War to integration and beyond, to today’s serving personnel.

The exhibition is now open in the centenary year of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) formation. 

Women working in an official capacity for the Royal Navy were disguised as men prior to the establishment of the first female uniformed service – the Naval Nursing Service in 1884, later renamed the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service 1902.  
The WRNS formed in 1917. A uniformed women’s involvement in the Royal Navy directly confronted gender equality issues that still profoundly affect us today. As such, this exhibition aims to highlight women’s involvement and impact in both world wars, the Cold War, integration of the WRNS with the Royal Navy and the continued efforts of female personnel today. 
The objects in the exhibition will illustrate the role of women in the navy in the widest spectrum, ranging from a rare First World War Ratings uniform (only 5,500 women served during the 20 months the service operated in the First World War) to an oboe owned by a member of the Royal Marine Band Service.
Key issues for women in the Navy are also addressed, objects such as a Naval Officer’s maternity dress indicate the key differences and concerns that women face whilst in service.

Interview: Victoria Ingles talks about new discoveries

Curator Victoria Ingles talks about the exhibition, celebrating the role of women in the Royal Navy, with some surprising discoveries.

The exhibition is based at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard inside The National Museum of the Royal Navy. Entry is free with a valid Annual All Attraction Ticket.


Women and the Royal Navy - Key dates


29 November 1917

Announcement of the formation of the WRNS

1 April 1918

c. 2,000 Wrens transfer to WRAF when RNAS and Royal Flying Corps merge

12th April 1939

WRNS reformed. By September 1939. 1000 wrens were employed as communicators, writers, drivers, cooks, stewards, and a small number of WRNS Officers. Duties grew and by 1944 the total number of wrens was 74, 635.

1st Feb 1949

WRNS became integral part and permanent part of the Royal Navy.

1st July 1977

WRNS became subject to the Naval Discipline Act for the first time. 

1st April 1989

Admiralty Board decide: WRNS personnel in future to be trained to carry personal weapons for defensive purposes. To become effective for all new entrants to WRNS from 01.04.89.
[DCI (RN) 369 / 88]

5th Feb 1990

Decision announced in the House of Commons: “to extend the employment of members of the WRNS to include service at sea in surface ships of the Royal Navy.”

8th Oct 1990

Wrens joined HMS Brilliant. It became the first Royal Navy Ship to carry women as members of the ships company.

28th Nov 1990

HMS Invincible became the 2nd mixed manned ship after the Brilliant. HMS June = 3rd on 10.12.90. HMS Battleaxe = 4th on 22.01.91.
By this time 422 billets were filled by women. By 1993 it was 490.

14th Jan 1991

First Wrens to serve at sea as members of a ships company sailed on HMS Brilliant. Operation Granby.

2nd Nov 1993

WRNS formally integrated into the Royal Navy. The post of Director of WRNS ceased 15/10/93. 
[DCI (RN) 259 / 93]

23rd June 2004

Cpt Caroline Stait promoted to Commodore. 1st woman to hold this rank in the Royal Navy.


First women join submarines 


Announcement that women can serve in close combat roles, possibility of women serving in RM commandos from 2019.

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands