WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As the grainy snapshots and memorabilia make clear, not all military battles fought by America’s servicewomen were against the enemy.
There’s an etching of dour-faced Deborah Sampson Gannett who dressed as a man and fought with the Continental Army. There’s the ivory-handled cane of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman awarded a Medal of Honor, for her treatment of Civil War wounded. When Congress, later deciding the medal should be reserved for those involved in direct combat, tried to take it back, she refused to give it up.
There are the nurses of World War II, including Lt. Ruth Delores Buckley, who is pictured taking a soldier’s blood pressure. She later was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds suffered at Anzio, the decisive beachhead battle that allowed the Allies to liberate Italy in 1944.
The portraits of the smiling women of yesterday, mostly nurses, posing in front of propeller airplanes, give way to smiling women of today, mostly pilots, posing beside their fighter jets.
More Than 1.8 Million Women Have Served
This Memorial Day, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery will once again commemorate the little-known stories, and the heroics, of the more than 1.8 million women who served in the armed services over the past two centuries.
After the official speeches, anyone may come forward, give a testimonial about a servicewoman and drop rose petals into the reflecting pool.
The women’s memorial, as it is known informally, stands at the gateway to Arlington Cemetery, and is constructed behind an existing semicircular granite facade that served as a visual terminus to the Washington Mall. It’s the only major national memorial dedicated to all women who served in the armed forces.
But, since its opening in 1997, the memorial also has emerged as a touchstone for former and current military servicewomen.
“I think the memorial is the greatest unifier of women in the service,” said Mary Goodsell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who turns 80 this year. During World War II, she was among the 164 women who served in a logistical unit and entered newly liberated Paris behind the ground troops.
“We’re finding people who had forgotten they were in the Army or Navy,” Goodsell said of the memorial efforts. “They felt like they weren’t veterans because they didn’t have a Purple Heart or didn’t serve overseas.”
Not Considered Veterans Until Post World War II
This is especially true of Goodsell’s generation. The military itself didn’t consider the women as veterans. The Veterans Administration did not recognize the women who served in the World War II-era auxiliary services, such as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, until 1977.
This lack of recognition and benefits was just one of the many rules and regulations that obstructed women’s service. Some of the most egregious legal barriers have slowly been repealed over the past 40 years. They included limits on promotions and on Veteran’s Administration services, automatic discharge for pregnancy, a cap of 2 percent on the proportion of women to men in the armed forces and a ban on base housing. Even the Veterans of Foreign Wars barred women until the 1970s.
Goodsell chafed at the limits on rank and the reluctance of her male supervisors to give women high marks because they thought it meaningless.
“I was a major for so long I thought it was my first name,” she quipped.
Currently, women are barred from ground combat and combat-related positions within the Army and Marines, from the services’ special forces units and from serving aboard Navy submarines. But, they command Navy surface ships, they fly combat missions and they fill leadership positions, whether on a carrier’s flight deck or at a Pentagon desk. They also get full benefits.
This last barrier “will eventually fall,” said retired Brig. Gen. Connie Slewitzke, former chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
“I don’t think women should be drafted into those roles, although if we’re going to have equality you have to take the good with the not so good.” said Slewitzke.
Memorial Captures Evolution of Women’s Status
The memorial seeks to capture those changing times and women who represented change.
“We didn’t know much about the history of women in the military,” said Wilma Vaught, a retired Air Force brigadier general and president of the women’s memorial foundation. “One of our primary focuses is to develop programs that make visible the role and history of women. It’s a very rich history.”
The creation of a computerized registry of servicewomen is being developed that will include a computerized format permitting the women or their family and friends to tell the personal story of their service. So far, fewer than 300,000 of the 1.8 million women are listed. (Servicewomen can download registration information from the www.womensmemorial.org Web site.)
To Slewitzke, the memorial is about recognition for servicewomen in general, but also for the military nurses whose role has often been overlooked or dismissed. Slewitzke, a registered nurse, served two tours in Korea and one tour in Vietnam. Her 30-year career, from 1957 through 1987, spans some of the most dramatic changes for women.
“I think we have to be constantly on the alert to be sure women get recognized. We find it acute in nursing, in the civilian community, too,” she said. “It irritates me today that people think it’s not as important as some of these other roles that women are achieving.”
Praise for Those Who Carved ‘Teensy, Weensy’ Trails
The accomplishments of Slewitzke and Goodsell are not lost on Air Force Maj. Juliette Ritzman, the pilot of an Army Chinook helicopter who recently transferred to the Air Force Reserves. At 38, the mother of two sons knows that if everything goes well, she possibly can retire in another 20 years as a general.
“Anytime the doors have been opened by the previous generations, it makes the barriers less for those of us coming after them,” Ritzman said. “I feel so spoiled. It almost seems so simple, that it’s been handed to me. I haven’t had to do anything difficult compared to what they’ve been through.”
To Ritzman, the women’s memorial is about validation. “We’ve always known our service has been full of purpose. It’s gratifying to see it visually,” she said.
Mary Goodsell praises Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and other early trailblazers in the women’s movement. “I have tremendous respect for these women who courageously broke ground and made a teensy, weensy little trail that we could open up into a highway of opportunity for these lovely young women who are coming through today,” she said.
And, that’s one of the major lessons she hopes the 200,000 annual visitors take home with them. “I would like to have them, more than anything else in the world, have a basic respect for women and for the ability of women. We have fought so hard to prove we can do something.”
Nancy Mathis is a free-lance writer in Washington who has covered the White House and Congress.For more information, visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial: http://www.womensmemorial.org/