Book reviews: 'History in Blue' by Allan T. Duffin, 'A Few Good Women' by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee

By Elaine Showalter
Sunday, May 9, 2010


160 Years of Women Police, Sheriffs, Detectives, and State Troopers

By Allan T. Duffin

Kaplan. 337 pp. $27.95


America's Military Women from World War I to the War in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee

Knopf. 475 pp. $32.50

In "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" (1845), Margaret Fuller set out the original feminist proclamation about women's access to work: "We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man." Nevertheless, women aspiring to enter jobs beyond the home and the classroom were told for centuries that traditionally male occupations would take them away from their domestic duties, threaten their reproductive capacities, tax their weak intellects and offend divine providence; and that whether they wanted to be doctors or cattle-ranchers, their ambitions were impossible, unsuitable and immoral. Even in the 21st century, American women do not fill all the offices held by men, from president of the nation, to writer for talk-show hosts.

Are the remaining barriers against women the result of lingering sex discrimination and prejudice? Are they the product of natural gender differences in ability? Or do they protect women against harm? Such questions are most heated today as applied to women in the police and the military. In Washington, D.C., we have become quickly accustomed to seeing Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and other women police officers report on violent crimes on the nightly news, although only 13 percent of municipal police officers nationally are women. And while women serve in support roles in the armed forces, they are banned from combat. Many argue that women should not put themselves in harm's way on the mean streets and the fields of battle, facing injury, capture and death at the hands of criminals or enemies, and that their presence undermines crucial male camaraderie. Others, including the authors of "A Few Good Women," argue that American women have repeatedly proved themselves in combat situations and are being unjustly barred from promotion, awards and historical recognition. Police work and military service are complex case studies for debate about women and work.

Both "History in Blue," by Allan T. Duffin, and "A Few Good Women," by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, document women's work history and provide fascinating individual stories. There have been women in police work since the beginning of the 20th century, initially as mother-figures "with a badge," who would stop juveniles from smoking, advise wayward girls and patrol saloons. At first, they were comic figures; on her first day patrolling Chicago's shopping district in 1909, Josephine Sullivan had her pocketbook stolen. Mary Hamilton, head of the women's bureau of the NYPD in the 1920s, attempted to fingerprint a gorilla as a publicity stunt, but ended up with four broken ribs. In 1943, the NYPD issued a "combination gun holster and makeup kit" to female officers. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia told women cops to "use your gun as you would your lipstick. . . . Don't overdo either one." But in the 1970s, federal law, mass media and popular culture, including Angie Dickinson's hit TV series "Police Woman" and the police procedural novels of Dorothy Uhnak, made the female police officer a familiar and respected figure. Duffin concludes that today the fight for equal opportunity in law enforcement has been mainly won.

The story is different in the military. According to Monahan, a psychologist who served in the Women's Army Corps from 1961-67, and Neidel-Greenlee, a nurse who served in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps from 1962-65, the war experience of American military women, especially in World War II, has been "cast out" of official history, with devastating effects on civil rights, women's military careers and political participation, and national security and defense. Since 1918, when they were accepted as volunteers, women in the armed services have been treated as auxiliaries -- separate from the male chain of command, ineligible for the same benefits and rewards as men, often vilified and insulted, and accused of undermining what now-Sen. James Webb called, in 1979, one of the last places where "someone [can] go to find out if he is a man." The authors suggest a "mandatory program of universal national service" for both men and women, with military or civilian options, to draw on the strength and patriotism of young women and prepare them for military careers, and to demonstrate to all Americans that along with rights come responsibilities.

In the 21st century, Fuller's manifesto needs to be modified to meet new realities and unexpected consequences, and women will have to acknowledge that combat is ultimately about victory rather than equality. As with professional sports, women should have the option to try out, to train and to compete, even though most will never be fighting on the same teams with men, any more than they will be playing quarterback for the Redskins. With technological changes in warfare, however, women's physical disadvantages may soon be overcome. Modern feminism, with its roots in the antiwar and radical social movements of the 1960s, must recognize that the strong female leadership it longed for may now also come from women in uniform carrying guns.

Elaine Showalter is professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and the author of "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company