Makers: Women In War

This Veterans Day, Lady Collective would like to take a moment to remember and honor military veterans the world over, who have bravely heeded the call to stand up for community and country. In that spirit, I checked out Makers: Women in War which chronicles the struggle of women in the US Armed Services, and the ultimate triumph of those brave ladies who had to fight first at home in order to defend their country abroad.

Following World War Two, more women became interested in joining the military. However, due to a number of restrictions, they were confined to support roles. Women served as nurses, secretaries, and public affairs officials. The number of women was also capped at 2% of the total force; these restrictions remained in place through the Vietnam War. While women were not allowed to participate in direct combat, the changing nature of war meant that more women were exposed to attack. With no field or combat training, women were told to hide under their beds during rounds of enemy fire.

Admiral Michelle J. Howard, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1967, President Johnson lifted the 2% cap on women. Following the end of the Vietnam War, the military enticed women to enlist with talk of equal pay and glamorous jobs. But the idea of women rising through the ranks still seemed like a pipe dream. When the President repealed the cap, he suggested, “Some day, we might even have a female chief of staff or commander in chief”; the whole audience promptly burst into laughter. Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys.

Angela Salinas

Major General Angela Salinas, photo courtesy of USMC

Much like the space program, the military did not know how to deal with this new influx of women. Major General Angela Salinas, the highest ranking woman ever to serve in the Marine Corps, recalled showing up for basic training and receiving a “professional packet.” Its contents? How to put on makeup and arrange hair properly. (This comment made me think of the recent revisions to the hair policy after the military declared braids, twists, cornrows, and other styles frequently worn by African-American women as “matted” and “unkempt.” True story.)

Linda L. Bray

Captain Linda Bray, photo courtesy of PBS Makers

In spite of officers telling them to go home, that the military was their institution, and that women were somehow forced into roles that they could not fulfill, women kept coming. Captain Linda Bray became the first woman to engage in combat when she and her troops returned fire in the 1989 US invasion of Panama. Amidst the media frenzy that ensued, more women officers expressed that, given the changing nature of war, the no-combat policy just kept women from promotions.

One of the most moving interviews spoke with Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum. During a mission to rescue a wounded officer in Iraq, then Flight Surgeon Cornum’s helicopter was shot down. When she regained consciousness, she was taken as a prisoner of war. As she lay in the back of a truck, one of her captors tried to rape her; she recalls, as he tried to remove her flight suit, that at that moment she realized both of her arms were broken. Yet he was unsuccessful in his pursuit because she screamed her ass off and scared him aware. Although her attempted rape was used as another excuse to keep women out of combat, she explained in an interview that the situation was not the worst scenario she could imagine. As a woman serving in war, she accepted all possible dangers and knew that she could survive it.

With the advent of the second Iraq War and the necessity of Female Engagement Teams, the very idea of keeping women away from the front went out the window; where exactly was the front line? In this new theater of war, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, “There was no front of war; there was no rear; there was no way to segment off the environment,” so what point was there in telling women they couldn’t fight? By January 2013, resistance finally seemed futile and the military eliminated the direct ground combat exclusion rule.

As I watched this episode, I felt a similar connection to past episodes of Makers and to the idea of letting women speak for themselves. Obviously, no one hour episode of anything will speak for all women: not much was said about lesbians or trans women in the military or the discrimination that women of color face. But I feel as though the choice to put oneself in the line of fire is an incredibly personal one. It takes an incredible amount of strength that is tested every day by people trained to doubt your abilities until there is no question that you are ready. And for the handful of women that were picked for the episode, it was nice to hear them speak from their own experiences instead of having a narrative thrust upon them.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all veterans out there. xo

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