Female nursing officers in the navy: from entry into the military to first promotion


Ana Paula Carvalho OrichioI; Maria Angélica de Almeida Peres II; Laís de Miranda Crispim CostaIII; Antonio José de Almeida FilhoIV; Tânia Cristina Franco Santos V.

I PhD in Nursing. Lieutenant-commander. Nurse of the Brazilian Navy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. E-mail: anaorichio@gmail.com
II PhD in Nursing. Adjunct Professor, Anna Nery Nursing School, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. E-mail: aguaonda@uol.com.br
III PhD in Nursing, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing and Pharmacy, Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil. E-mail: laismcc@gmail.com
IV Associate Professor, Anna Nery Nursing School, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. E-mail: ajafilhos@gmail.com
V PhD in Nursing. Anna Nery Nursing School, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. E-mail: taniacristinafsc@terra.com.br
VI Study based on the Doctoral Thesis Nurse Officers for the Brazil Navy: from the military training course to the conquest of space in the Marcílio Dias Naval Hospital (1980-1984)

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12957/reuerj.2016.18117




Objective: to describe the placement of nursing officers at the Marcílio Dias Naval Hospital and examine the strategies applied to recognize their military and professional worth. Method: the sources for this historical social study were written documents and interviews with nurses of the first class 1981-1984. Data were organized, classified and analyzed by the historical method, in the light of Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field. The research ethics committee of the Anna Nery School of Nursing approved the study (protocol No. 105/2009). Results: the unprecedented presence of nurse officers in a military hospital was found to lead to a reclassification of positions of power, since these military nurses replaced the female civilians in charge of nursing. Conclusion: the entry of women into a masculine space reasserted relations of inequality through symbolic violence legitimized by the different capitals, which led to symbolic struggles between the nursing officers and other agents for professional recognition.

Keywords : nursing; nursing history; military nursing; research.




The object of the present studyVI is the symbolic struggle of nurse officers from the first Female Auxiliary Group of Navy Reserve (FAGNR) for the recognition of their military and professional capital at the Marcílio Dias Naval Hospital (MDNH). The time frame begins in 1981, corresponding to the year the nurse officers joined the MDNH, and ends in 1984, the year when the first promotion of the nurse officers took place, from the second lieutenant to the first lieutenant position of the Brazilian navy.

The following objectives were outlined for the present study: to describe the insertion of nurse officers in the MDNH, and analyze the strategies adopted by them to achieve recognition of their military and professional capital.



The FAGNR was created by Law 6.807 of July 7, 1980, by the Minister of the Navy, Admiral Maximiano da Fonseca (1979-1984), under the government of the President of the Republic, General João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo 1. This law was regulated by Decree 85.328 of October 7, 1980. The justification for the creation of FAGNR was to supply the Navy with officers and sub-officers for the exercise of technical and administrative functions, by calling women to the Active Military Service. Thus, the FAGNR was structured in two segments: Female Auxiliary Board of Officers (FABO) and Female Auxiliary Board of Sub-officers (FABS). The first segment should be staffed by professionals with superior education, that is, graduate and postgraduate personnel, and the second segment, with professionals with medium-level qualification, that is, technical training1.

In 1980, the press began publicizing the recruitment of candidates to make up the first group of military women of the Brazilian Navy. For this, a public selection was carried out at the national level, with the following stages: written and oral test of professional knowledge; proof of communication and expression; interview; psychological examination; physical fitness test; and health examination. Those approved in the initial selection to join the FABO should still successfully complete the four-month adaptation course2. At the end of the course, nurse officers who achieved the first-place distinction would be appointed Head of the MDNH Nursing Division, with compulsory replacement for the civil nurses who served there.

This process was permeated by issues such as power, domination, subversion, hierarchy and gender, which led these nurse officers to develop strategies undertaken in symbolic struggles to achieve positions of power and prestige in that naval hospital, and, by extension, in the military field.

The contribution of this study in relation to already published information on the subject is evidenced by the deepening of the discussion on the inclusion of nurses in the military field, as officers. Their achievement of military capital represents a seal for their admission and permanence in these spaces traditionally devoted to men, which is in line with the conflicted trajectory of the women's insertion in the working universe 3. On the other hand, regarding studies on the history of the profession, understanding past experiences may also prove to be an opportunity to reflect on the present4.



This is a qualitative study with historical-social approach. The sources were primarily composed of documents located in the Documentation Service of the Brazilian Navy, as well as semi-structured interviews with four participants, who were identified by the letter I (interviewed) according to the sequence of interviews. The criteria for election of interviewees were: being a military nurse of the first group, being assigned to the Military Service in the MDNH by the end of the adaptation course for the FABO, and being in the active or reserve military position. The documents are part of the Anna Nery Nursing School collection and were organized and classified in chronological and thematic order.

The documentary analysis of the corpus consisted in analyzing the context in which the facts were produced and disseminated, the identity of the authors, the authenticity and reliability of the text through external and internal criticism, the nature of the text and key concepts 5,6.. The concepts of habitus and field of the Social World Theory developed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were used for data treatment7.

The doctoral project that originated the present article was approved by the Research Ethics Committees of the Anna Nery Nursing School/São Francisco de Assis Teaching Hospital (Protocol 105, from 29/06/2010) and of the Marcílio Dias Naval Hospital (Protocol 38, from 09/09/2010).



Insertion of the first nurse officers

The MDNH was inaugurated on February 8, 1980, in the Lins de Vasconcelos neighborhood, Rio de Janeiro, with the purpose of serving users of the Navy Health System and serving as a reference for health issues of the Military Force. In this new unit, many nurse officers of the first group of the FAGNR started their activities.

The criteria for distributing officers in the health units were based on the officers' choice, according to the course final classification. Thus, the officers that obtained better scores would have their choice more easily effected. About this distribution, one of the respondents said:

They put us in the auditorium of Marcílio Dias, and announced, nominally, the assignments of the Military Organizations. When they called my name, I was assigned to the Navy's Central Dental clinic. Then I said: What am I going to do in the Dental clinic? I am a nurse! I asked if changes were possible. And they said, "Yes, if you find anyone who wants to exchange with you". So, a colleague decided to change places with me. I went to the MDNH, and I never left. (I4)

The distribution of the military women was meritocratic; the referred interviewee did not obtain a score for immediate choice of place to develop her activities. This distribution strategy of personnel at the end of the courses is common practice in the military field, and also distinguishes those that stand out during the training courses. This is because the transition from a practical group state to the established group calls for construction of a classificatory principle, which contributes to enunciate the set of distinctive and characteristic properties of the established group.

Furthermore, the most effective social distinctions are based, in part, on objective differences. Thus, it is evident that the classification between the first and the last position creates differences that go from everything to nothing7. In this sense, the classification of nurse officers based on the scores during the course would leave evident the proclamation of an ordination that consecrated a differentiated competence and, consequently, a social distinction 8.

During the first days of work in the MDNH, the military women wore the light blue uniform of the training course, which was in contrast with the white color of the rest of the hospital staff, as can be seen in the following excerpt:

We started with that blue uniform. We were called the 'blue plague!'. (I4)

The interviewees could not specify the reason for choosing the blue color for the uniforms of the first officers, a color never used in the Brazilian Navy. They expressed some discomfort regarding the difference in uniforms, since the other women, the civilian nurses, wore white uniforms, as the rest of the military personnel in the health area. However, it is worth emphasizing that the color blue, which generally represents the male sex, may have been used intentionally to masculinize the image of these nurse officers, reducing the signs of sexuality/sensuality of the body of those officers.

Other aspect that calls attention is that the hats or covers that are part of the uniforms of the Armed Forces are commonly used when military members are in external environments, but are unnecessary indoors. However, the nurses' uniforms were inconsistent with this rule; their uniform included the cap, which was considered as military cover, and should also be used indoors. It is noteworthy that even civilian nurses in all national territory had already abolished the use of the cap as a nursing symbol in the early 1980s.

Regarding the position of leadership, when nurse officers replaced the civilian nurses, one of the interviewees reported:

We were introduced to the Nursing Section, headed by three civilian nurses. And soon after that, the girls were assigned to take over the sector. I was sorry for the oldest officer! She suffered a lot! She had no experience at all. She had just left college, she entered the Navy, and she had to take over the entire Nursing department. (I2)

More time of experience is a mandatory requirement for leadership positions in the military logic. Thus, an officer with no professional experience but who had obtained a good score in the training course is generally assigned to managerial functions, despite the presence of professionals who have the highest accumulated professional capital. As a matter of fact, the compulsory replacement of civil nurses was strictly based on the valorization of the military capital of the nurse officers.

The nurse officers' insecurity to assume the new roles was evident, since they did not have the necessary knowledge of the field in which they were inserted. Moreover, they had to face the resistance of civilians in accepting the leadership of the novice and inexperienced professional. Nonetheless, civilian nurses knew that in the military field, they would be at disadvantage. Thus, the persistence of that asymmetrical situation, which at times favored them, would not last, and their resistance could not be ostensible.

This situation led to the transference of some civilian nurses to other health facilities because they did not accept to be subordinate to the new military women. Of course, the occupation of the spaces inside the MDNH field was permeated by the resistance of some civil nurses, who interpreted the arrival of the nurse officers as a loss of professional prestige.

Basically, although the superiority of military professionals over civilian professionals is seen as something natural in the military field, some aspects were not properly taken into account: the lack of preparation of the military nurses and the devaluation of the civilians in the process, where civil nurses were replaced or subordinated to military nurses. The reorganization of the MDNH Nursing Service, initially designed by superiors who appointed the occupation of positions, would depend on the incorporation of the military habitus by the newly arrived nurses.

Space of symbolic struggles for the military and professional capital recognition of the nurse officers

The institutional power at the Naval Hospital was linked to the possession of a specific (military) capital and to taking important positions in the Nursing Headship and in sectors that composed the unit. This is because, the exercise of power does not result only from repression; It pervades the occupation of spaces, mediation, persuasion, seduction and consent. These initiatives are not limited to constraint and decision-making; they also involve the set of strategies in which education, discipline and forms of representation influence the production of thoughts, people and things 7.

Thus, in this redistribution of functions, nurse officers were at advantage when compared to civilian nurses, due to institutionalized military capital, manifested through their patents. The fact of being military and of being under the aegis of rigid disciplinary regulation favored the exercise of power, endorsed to the military women when they conquered the position of second lieutenants, at the end of the training course. This advantage was mentioned by one of the interviewees:

It's much easier for you to get things from workers, because there is a hierarchy. There is a discipline to be followed, whereas there is no such thing in a civil hospital. (I3)

In addition, among people of the same group, officers and sub-officers, endowed with military habitus, everything became evident, even the conflicts, although expressed in half words. This situation was unlikely with the civilian nurses, as they had a different status in that professional scenario7. In this sense, professionals who are instituted feel compelled to be what their assignment sets, behaving in accordance with their function9.

Regarding the occupation of spaces, the nurse officers established different strategies. The exercise of a charismatic leadership, for example, in some situations aimed at creation of affective and professional bonds with the other members of the nursing team, and this strategically resulted in better adherence and motivation of these members. On the other hand, the relationship with male sub-officers (male nursing technicians) was quite difficult, since they did not accept the authority of the military women in a cordial manner:

It was an intractable difficulty. I have no words to explain. You would see it in the look, the gesture, the continence made with anger towards you. They would stand up angrily from their chairs when they had to give way to one of us. (I4)

Therefore, the military women perceived the resistance of subordinates to military and professional authority, hence the (male) sub-officers would follow a merely protocolled treatment toward female nurse officers, so as not to ostensibly show the displeasure of being headed by a military woman.

The process of integration of nurse officers to the naval family was a necessary step in their insertion at the field. This integration is a product of institutional work aimed at promoting appropriate practices and feelings among their members, assuring the integration/membership/obedience to the institution itself9. Therefore, it represents the product of great investment in the accumulation of military capital10. In order to become members of this family, the nurse officers began to be tested in competence and patience. With regard to the relationship with hierarchical superiors (physicians), one interviewee reported an embarrassing situation:

I remember that one day when I was in the elevator at 2:00 a.m. I met a senior officer on duty. I was wearing lower heel shoes than established in the Brazilian Navy Uniform Regulations (BNUR). [...] Then he said: These shoes are not in the BNUR, are they, officer?! I just replied: No, sir. (I1)

Thus, monitoring, embarrassment, and discomfort would serve a two-fold purpose: as a strategy of symbolic manipulation of hierarchical superiors in the process of the so-called compatible inculcation and formatting of behaviors, and also as strategy of male domination in that field.

Frightened by the risk of suffering career losses as a result of probable applications of disciplinary punishments, the nurse officers would deal hostility of the older ones with solitary cries, whose witnesses were only the other offended women. One participant of the research reported subtleties of the precarious manner in which the nurse officers were treated:

They treated us like maids. [...] They would give us orders. When I would arrive in my sector, they would say: Sense, Lieutenant! Then I had to stand there. And then, they left me there, and I did not know what to do! I would say: Oh my God, what am I going to do? If I left, they would often say: Did I ever tell you to leave? It was like this all the time. They tested our patience. [...] I also remember that when some began to become pregnant, they suffered too much! All our colleagues, both the sub-officers and the officers, were treated in this way, quite differently from the way a pregnant woman should be treated. (I4)

Body modifications and the possible limitations related to the gestational period were treated as a problem, in a degrading way, by some superiors, as the following excerpt exposes:

I heard my subordinates saying: He says that I have to stand, that I cannot sit. He says to me: Who told you to become pregnant. [...] I remember that when I got pregnant for the first time, around the eighth month, my feet became very swollen, they would not fit in the shoes. Knowing that women have the right to be exempted from making queue in the final period of pregnancy, I went to the Director's office. [...] I told his assistant that I would not be able to make it. The assistant called an Army corporal from the cabinet, and asked what her shoes' number was. As she was wearing 39, he asked the Army corporal's shoes, and said: Here, lend me your shoes, the lieutenant will make queue with your shoes! (I4)

The interviewee's report shows intimidation/humiliation against the officer, which calls attention to the asymmetry of positions of power and hierarchy installed. In this process of inculcation of military habitus, which should distinguish them within the field, unpredictable and singular situations were faced. In fact, the more the situation was charged with potential violence, the more formalities were required; in this case, those particularly required by military conduct expressly regulated by rites methodically instituted and codified within the field7.

Even with the fear of hierarchical superiors, many nurse officers were assigned to organize various sectors of the MDNH that had not yet worked out, and because of the nature of military activity, they were obliged to remain in work until the higher authority granted them permission to leave the service.

Regarding the actions developed, one interviewee stated that she had performed activities that were not related to nursing, in order to complete the organization of the sector for the inauguration:

I bought foam, the foam-cutting machine, the plastic, and I spent two consecutive Saturdays and Sundays sewing there in the laundry room. As I knew how to sew, all the nursery mattresses were made by me. [...] There were no cleaning personnel at the time of the inauguration of the sector. So, I went to the operating room, got a suit, and went to clean the room at night. Around nine-thirty in the evening, the Admiral passed by and found me in Surgical Center clothing with a broom in my hand. He thought I was cleaning woman. When he saw me, he was surprised! This is why the concepts he has about me were all excellent. (I3)

While performing the functions described above, the nurse officers reproduced maternal and domestic tasks in the professional space, defined by the symbolic effects of male domination3. Hence, the essentially social logic of what we call vocation has the effect of producing such harmonious meetings between provisions and positions; these meetings make agents happily carry out subordinate or menial tasks assigned to them by their virtues of humility, kindness, gentleness, devotion and selflessness11.

In this perspective, the development of traditionally feminine activities is defined as natural for women, as acting in public spaces is not easy for many of them, who, over the years, have become accustomed to the private domain. As a result, they often rely on their traditional roles in order to circumvent the adversity, and the female work is attached to the domestic nature, and women are almost always understood as a housewives12 . This distribution of roles and qualities imposed on women starts in the very context of family life. There, the role of dedicated caregiver of different family members is tacitly established 13. This contributes to reaffirm sex differences, given the nature of the care provided and its origin14.

Obviously, nurse officers needed to be always aware of the perception schemes and rules of conduct, since they were constantly observed regarding posture and personal life. The officers who exposed themselves with courtship and relationships with doctors, for example, ran the risk of precarious evaluation by hierarchical superiors, resulting many times in the removal of many competent officers.

It is worth of mention that this learning of social reality, which makes each one perceive the limits, is precisely the habitus as internalization of external determinations15. This internalization marks the relationship with oneself; it is internalization in the sense that the person assumes or accepts what he/she is destined to be/to do.

As a result of these struggles and mobilization of strategies, the first great conquest of the nurse officers in recognition of their military and professional capital was the assumption of the rank of first lieutenant, on the occasion of the first promotion. The Ordinance nº 1447 of August 31, 1984, disclosed the names of the officers promoted by seniority, for having fulfilled the intersection determined by the Military Force.



After joining the MDNH, the nurse officers had to face a challenging scenario, as their presence was uncomfortable for men and even undesirable for civil nurses, who had been in the hospital for many years without significant threat from other agents.

To face the challenges that rose in this field, the nurse officers had to develop strategies to gain spaces and to obtain professional acknowledgement. In this process, it became evident that their attitude was not always one of submission and subservience. This way, they were able to advance and to gain space and power in the hospital field. Boldly, they were able to withstand the humiliations and discriminations, and also diligently resisted, opening spaces in the struggle for institutional power.

Initially, it was necessary to exalt typical feminine qualities in order to extend to the public space the attributes of private life, so that they could be better acknowledged by their hierarchical superiors. They also established some alliances with the civil nurses in order to gain their cooperation for the good progress of the service.

Notwithstanding the undeniable achievement of entering this masculine field, the entry of those new arrivals reaffirmed the relations of inequality between men and women, and between the women themselves, through the symbolic violence legitimized by the different capitals. Symbolic struggles among the nurse officers and the other agents involved, for professional recognition, were also present. This is the reason why the present study is a stimulus to the continuity in the scenarios of research and practice that are inserted in the nursing field, especially, in the military.



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