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Swiss Women Battle Bias in Army, Jobs : Military: Female soldiers have been part of the service since 1940, but some male commanders still assign them to make coffee.

October 21, 1990|CLARE NULLIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BERN, Switzerland — Fifty years after the first women joined Switzerland's army, some old guard commanders still order them to make coffee.

The 3,000 women doing military service also risk criticism from family and friends, and prejudice from employers unwilling to give them paid leave for regular refresher training.

Brig. Gen. Eugenie Pollack puts discrimination and male chauvinism high on the list of obstacles she has encountered since becoming chief of the Women's Military Service last year.

She is a soft-spoken, determined woman who raised eyebrows in conservative army circles this summer by marrying her longtime companion. He is a lawyer who works for environmental causes, she said in an interview at her headquarters in the Swiss capital.

Women's reluctance to take the army seriously is more significant than the sexist comments and attitudes, Pollack said, blaming the reluctance for the persistent shortage of women volunteers.

If the brigadier had her way, national service would be compulsory for all women in this neutral country, with military and civilian options.

"Every woman should have a certain training," she said. "For example, we should all know how to move into an air raid shelter and how to cope in a disaster. I do not agree that only men should have such education."

Female volunteers are committed to 117 days of service--four weeks of basic training and refresher courses of two or three weeks over several years.

Basic training for male conscripts in the 625,000-man reserve force lasts 17 weeks and overall service totals one year.

Women do not receive weapons training, but the government is expected to allow them to carry pistols in the near future for self-defense.

Pollack said she favors arming women on a voluntary basis, estimating that 50% to 70% of her volunteers would choose to carry weapons.

She added, however, that women never would be used in combat because it would be politically unacceptable and "there is no need."

In the past, women soldiers have been confined to medical, clerical or transport jobs, but now they can work in the intelligence service, as trainers of rescue dogs and as chaplains.

But male commanders do not always let women fill positions for which they are trained, Pollack said.

"We have had real problems with some commanders who merely sent women to make coffee," she said, describing the attitude as reflective of society in general. Switzerland did not give women the vote until 1971.

Much can be learned from other armies, the brigadier said, and she has invited participants from 11 countries to a three-day seminar on integrating women into the armed forces. They include the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Poland.

Only about 100 women have volunteered for the army this year, she said, leaving it nearly 1,000 short of the goal of 3,900.

The East-West thaw has caused interest to flag and the Persian Gulf crisis seems too distant to have an impact, Pollack said. "The irony of the whole business is that you almost have to wish for a crisis to attract enough people."

Switzerland first accepted women into the army in 1940, when it was a neutral island in German-occupied Europe, and there always has been a shortage of volunteers.

If the commander had her way, the women's corps ultimately would disappear. "Being utopian,," she said, "I would like to see women so integrated that a special female army no longer exists."

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