Jacinda Baker, a 26-year-old medic in the New Zealand Defence Force’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan, Afghanistan, was killed on 20 August 2012, when an improvised bomb destroyed the Humvee in which she was riding. Two other New Zealand soldiers died with her: Corporal Luke Tamatea (31) and Private Richard Harris (21).
Described by her commanding officer as ‘the mother hen, who we would not swap for the world’, Lance Corporal Baker was known for her professionalism and courage. She was the first female New Zealand soldier to be killed in action since troops were sent to Afghanistan, and the first woman to be in killed in conflict since nurse Lesley Cowper of the New Zealand Surgical Team died in Vietnam in 1966.
New Zealand’s army, which Baker joined in 2007, is one of the few in which she would be allowed a combat role. (Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland are the others.) Her death provoked discussion in Australia, New Zealand’s closest military ally, where women have been allowed in combat roles since 2011. The treatment of women in the Australian military has been the subject of scandal and a damning report by that country’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner (released in August 2012).
The road to women’s inclusion in New Zealand’s defence forces was surprisingly smooth. There was a precedent for women in combat roles – Māori women had taken part in fighting in the 19th century. Most well known was Hēni Te Kiri Karamū, who fought against the British at Gate Pā in 1864, and for them against Hauhau (adherents of the Pai Mārire faith) in 1865. Pākehā women first went to war as nurses – 35 New Zealand women went to the South African War (1899–1902) as nurses. Numbers swelled during the First World War, when 640 went as nurses. Of this group, 17 died.
During the Second World War, women’s auxiliaries became part of all three branches of the military. A civilian Women’s War Service Auxiliary (1940) found women to work as clerks, cooks and waitresses in New Zealand military bases and service clubs in the Middle East. Once women were accepted into the army in 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed, and Vida Jowett appointed chief commander. The closest WAACs got to combat was as drivers, radio operators and signallers, with some trained for coastal and anti-aircraft defence work and as part of artillery units.
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, led by Kitty Kain, worked in mechanical and aircraft trades, and as dental mechanics and meteorological assistants. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (New Zealand) was led by Chief Officer Ruth Herrick. Like women’s auxiliaries in the other arms of the military, the service provided clerks, drivers and mess staff.
As Te Ara’s Armed Forces entry explains, women’s roles had diversified, but no women actually fought. When women became a permanent part of New Zealand’s military after the Second World War, their numbers were small – only 4–5% in the 1950s and 1960s. Separate women’s services ended in 1977, and women were allowed to take combat roles from 2000. In 2012 women were 16% of non-civilian Defence Force personnel.