Now that qualified women can enter combat officially, it’s a good time to remember the many roles that women have played during wartime, whether those roles were military or civilian.
Writer Frank Moore dubbed classical women during the Civil War “Angels of Mercy” as they rolled bandages and patriotically waited for their men to come home. But he also understood that “the story of war will never be fully or fairly written if the achievements of women in it are untold.”
Moore knew that there were women soldiers in the Civil War, honored in DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook’s book They Fought Like Demons. The stories of hundreds of women who assumed male aliases, wore men’s uniforms, and charged into battle as either Union and Confederate soldiers are compelling. Mary Ann Pitman and Loreta Valázquez, for example, both raised a company of soldiers and later became spies.
More than a hundred years later, Marge Piercy’s 1980s epic novel Gone to Soldiers offered an important portrait of women’s experiences during World War II. Writing about women who ferried airplanes for the Air Force, served as intelligence officers in Europe, worked in factories to produce war goods, and more, Piercy put a female face on the reality of war.
Later, when Vietnam nurses lobbied for recognition, a new realization of women’s contributions and trials on the front lines emerged.
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Still, many a wartime heroine has gone unnoticed or been forgotten.
Claire Chevrillon was one of them. An English teacher in Paris in 1942, she served in the French Resistance for three years. In 1943, she was arrested and imprisoned.
“What I remember about arriving,” she recalled, “were the dark, subterranean, endless corridors through which I walked followed by a guard, as if in a nightmare.”
Chevrillon survived and wrote a 1985 memoir (Code Name Christiane Clouet: A Woman in the French Resistance). “The instinct of one nation or race to dominate another doesn’t die,” she said. “It grows insidiously, feeding on private and public concern, until suddenly it’s too late to prevent disaster.”
Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary in China during the 1937 “Rape of Nanking.” Called the Goddess of Mercy for trying to save as many girls and women as possible, she repeatedly faced down threats and bayonets to provide asylum for refugees at the college she headed.
A 1938 diary entry reveals her despair: “How long will this terrible situation last? How can we bear it?” she wrote.
In the end, Vautrin could not bear it. After helping women locate their husbands and sons and teaching destitute widows how to survive, she returned to the United States, committing suicide in May 1941.
Ninety-nine Army and Navy nurses later known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor were captured in the Pacific by the Japanese during World War II. The first to be sent into the middle of battle, they became the only group of American women captured and imprisoned by an enemy.
Before their incarceration, they helped build and staff hospitals in the middle of a malaria-infested jungle, pioneering triage nursing. Among them were women like Eleanor Garen, whose diary entry on a bad day read: “Garen, This is to yourself. Remember, life is not a bed of roses.”
An estimated 8,000 to 12,000 women served in Vietnam. Most of them were nurses; all had volunteered. Few were recognized as true veterans when they came home.
One of them, Lily Jean Adams, was 22 years old when she worked as an intensive care nurse. She remembered what it was like comforting a dying soldier: “Sometimes they would say, ‘Don’t leave me!’ And I wouldn’t. I had an inner sense that this was just as important as taking care of the living.”
Women war journalists have been equally brave. Traditionally a male arena, war reporting obscured the trauma experienced by women and other civilians living in attacked areas. These noncombatants would survive by fleeing to the hell of refugee camps, where sexual assault and other trauma is common.
Today, approximately one third of frontline journalists are female, and they have a measurable influence on the content of war coverage. They follow models like Anna Benjamin, the first female photojournalist who covered the Spanish-American War; Mary Boyle O’Reilly, who was at the front in World War I; and Peggy Hull, who covered both World Wars and was the first accredited female American war correspondent.
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Today, women make up approximately 16 percent of American military forces and about 6 percent of veterans. Although women were not officially recognized as members of the Armed Forces until 1901, and then only as nurses, women have served in every major war in U.S. history.
In World War I, women who weren’t nurses could finally join the military; more than 30,000 of them enlisted. During World War II, women’s roles expanded, and more than 400 women of the 400,000 who served lost their lives.
Operation Desert Storm marked the largest deployment of women to a combat theater in U.S. history until the second Iraq war, with more than 40,000 women serving. Today, women are graduating in ever-larger numbers from U.S. military academies, often at the top of their class.
Frank Moore was right. The story of war will never be fully written or understood if the achievements and contributions of women are unrecognized.
From soldiers to spies, nurses to Navy personnel, journalists to junior officers, veterans to wounded-warrior wives, the stories of women in wartime must be told.
The women at the center of those stories need to be honored, for they are women of courage, strength, and resilience — not only now, but as they have always been during wartime.