This remarkable book is worth reading on several counts. Amongthem is the fact that noting as comprehesive about women veteran existsin print. Also, the military and post-military experiences of thesewomen illustrate that without even knowing it, many were pioneers inredefining women’s role in contemporary society. June A. Willenz decided to write this book after spending 20 yearsin the veteran’s field of study and wondering where the womenveterans were and why they were not visible.
She discovered thatofficially there were 1.2 million women veterans as of April 1982 butcould find on further Government statistics about them, nor any academicstudies. Why is it, she asks, that neither the dedication norwillingness of over a million women to give themselves to their countrywas included in veterans’ literature or official reports? We are fortunate that Willenz persevered in completing this book,for she does a superb job of pushing aside many myths and stereotypesand providing the reader with solidly based historical material onwomen’s formal and informal participation in U.S. military servicesince Colonial times. This is followed by richly detailed profiles ofindividual women who served in the military at some time between the1940’s and 1970’s, emphasizing what happened to them when theyreturned to civilian life.
The book concludes with a description of thecurrent situation for women veterans, including their medical,educational, and other benefits, and several government policyinitiatives. The chapter devoted to historical background points out thatwomen’s official participation in the Armed Forces began with theformation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, followed by the Navy NurseCorps in 1903. Women, however, have had roles with the militaryservices, if not in the services, since our county was founded. Thesupport services and even more direct roles women provided in the Armyand militia units of the Revolutionary War are often overlooked in theliterature on that largely guerilla war. George Washington’s”Women of the Army” served as nurses and orderlies in hisoften chaotic hospital system and also did washing, cooking, andmending, frequently riding in baggage wagons much to his consternation.Other women served as water carries for artillery units, an essentialfunction because after a cannon was fired, it had to be swabbed withwater before it was reloaded.
It turns out that “MollyPitcher” was not a single woman, but repesented a group of women,much like “GI Joe” represented American soldiers during WorldWar II. The historical chapter also recounts many equally fascinatingevents and anecdotes from the War of 1812 and the Civil and SpanishAmerican Wars. World War I is reviewed as the first war in which womenwere actually recruited into the military services other than the NurseCorps.
While nurses remained the most numerous group in the services,the Navy recruited women to serve as Naval Reserve Yeomen, fillingmostly clerical and administrative jobs. Also, a very small number ofwomen served in the Marine Reserve, performing clerical duties and doingsome messenger and recruiting work. Willenz contends that one of theby-products of women’s World War I military activities was thepassage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, whichgave women the opportunity to vote in national elections.
Less than 25 years later, the outbreak of World War II produced thesame need for women’s participation in both the civilian andmilitary sectors. What transpired reflects society’s view of womenat the time. Their entry into military service is described as meetingstrong resistance from the War Department, Congress, and society ingeneral. It took from 1941 to 1942 for the bill authorizing the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to be passed. Recruiters were thenfaced with the fact that although patriotism was the overwhelmingsentiment across the country, there was no great enthusiasm in mostfamilies to send their daughters off to war. Recruiters had to promisethat new skills and training would be available to those who signed up. Willenz does well in characterizing the times.
“Young womenwith high school educations were likely to be engaged in routineclerical positions or in unskilled factory jobs. They were easilyimpressed by the new kinds of experience the services were publicizing.The film industry, meanwhile, was turning out romanticized verious ofwhat war was like, shrouding its realities in Hollywood tinsel.” .
. . “As was true with many men, there were those who enlistedbecause of personal trauma, the loss of a loved one, or the breakup of aromance. Certainly the sense of adventure motivated some youngwomen.” .
. . “Signing up for military service was anacceptable means of going out into the world. It was a permissible wayfor a woman to spread her wings and contribute to the nationalpurpose.” Some women joined because they had special skills, suchas nurses, or were older women with professional training andexperience, such as writers, broadcasters, public relations workers,teachers, linguists, scientists, and engineers. Most of these latterwomen became offiers, even if they didn’t initially enter asofficers. Willenz maintains that World War II was the last one for whichpatriotism was the dominant reason for going into the military. Neitherthe Korean nor Vietman War was popular, and with Vietman, thedisinterest was compounded by the hostility of large segments of thepopulation toward the war.
During the 1970’s, the All VolunteerForce changed the character of the military services to an occupationalmodel. Since then, Willenz believes that the major attractions for bothmen and women have been job possibilities and post-service benefits. A 100-page section of the book, entitled Profiles, consists of thecompelling personal stories of women aviators, the mechanicallyinclined, the adventurers, the ones who sought and got specifictraining, the dreamers, and the disappointed.
Included are interviewswith over 20 women veterans whose collective military service spans theyears from World War II through the post-Vietnam era. We meet women whoextol their participation, while others criticize the racial barriers orare bitter about the indignities of communal living and their oftensex-segregated assignments and training. Some allowed their real namesto be used, such as Sarah McClendon, currently a Washington journalist.There are stories of “bad apples” in the barracks and of beingthe object of deeply rooted prejudice against servicewomen, especiallyin the South. Some women say that they still don’t let most peopleknow they are veterans.
In another section of the book, the service-related benefitsreceived by women veterans are described as ranging from very little forthe majority of World War II veterans to close to parity for those whoserved during the Vietnam War or afterwards. Based on her research andinterviews. Willenz believes that most women veterans of World War IIprobably did not use their GI Bill benefits because such a great numbermarried and raised families and had neither the time, energy, norinclination to use them. This, of course, is all speculation because nodata exist on the subject. Willenz states that it seems unlikely thatwe will ever be able to determine how meaningful the GI Bill was to theWorld War II servicewomen, “because the Veterans Administration(VA) kept only a 2-percent sampling of information on all veterans.Since women were less than 2 percent of the Armed Forces, they fell bythe wayside in VA sampling procedures.” Health and hospital care are described as by far the weakest, mostdeficient, and for many years, practically undeliverable benefits towhich women veterans were entitled.
In theory, female veterans werealways entitled to the same medical benefits as male veterans; inpractice, this entitlement was given short shrift. Willenz points outthat from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, nearly all VAhospitals lacked facilities for women veterans. Moreover, these womenwere virtually disregarded as outpatients. That the situation haschanged somewhat since 1970, especially for post-Vietnam veterans, onlybecame known in 1982 when the VA published the first report in VAhistory on “Women Veterans Usage of VA Hospital Facilities.”(This report was updated by the VA in 1984.) Willenz sees today’s situation as one in which women whoserved in the Armed Forces are emerging out of a long period ofisolation and neglect to achieve legitimacy as veterans. They arebecoming visible in the media and are finally being heard by governmentagencies that are supposed to service them. Policymakers have heardwomen veterans speak out about the Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling program, exposure to Agent Orange, obtaining spousal andpregnancy benefits, and receiving the same treatment men receive in theVA medical system for nonservice connected health problems.
(Most VAmedical treatment for male veterans today is for nonservice connectedproblems.) Also, in contrast to women veterans in the past, who tendedto shun general veterans organizations and to join specific groups likethe WAC Veterans or the Women Marines, if they joined at all, those whoserved during the Vietnam conflict have been joining veteransorganizations in sizable numbers. The book concludes with a warming that the current trend ofinterest in women veterans will come to nothing unless it is translatedinto public policy, and a plea that the VA continue its relatively newAdvisory Committee on Women Veterans.