It reads like a John le Carré novel. A young woman dresses as a man, enlists in the Army and engages in combat. Later, she becomes a spy, repeatedly crossing enemy lines disguised as an Irish peddler and a black laundress, among other identities.
Sarah Emma Edmonds fought for the Union during the Civil War. Her fascinating story is one of many I discovered at the U.S. Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Va.
My wife and I made the trek to Fort Lee, an Army base near Petersburg, to explore this small museum that honors the role of women in the nation’s defense. We learned a lot as we viewed its displays, posters, photographs, maps and videos, which are arranged chronologically by conflict.
Before entering the museum gallery, we stopped to watch a short video outlining women’s contributions to the Army since 1775. Edmonds, it explained, was just one of thousands of women willing to sacrifice everything to defend the country. The recent announcement by the Defense Department allowing women into combat positions is controversial, but in truth women have faced combat since the beginning.
We stopped first at the American Revolution exhibit. There a figure stands next to a cannon in a bright-blue Continental Army coat and white bonnet with a ramrod at her side. When Margaret Corbin’s husband was mortally wounded at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan, the exhibition text recounts, she took his place loading and firing the cannon at Hessian troops until she was severely wounded herself. For her heroics, Corbin was awarded a military pension by Congress, becoming the first American woman to receive one.
Corbin’s pension was a rarity, but the willingness of women to serve despite being denied recognition, opportunity and reward was not.
The Civil War display explored the many ways — both overt and covert — that women found to serve. Over 400 women on both sides disguised themselves as men, many engaging in combat. Sally Tompkins ran a Confederate hospital with such efficiency that she received an officer’s commission during the war. And for her valor risking her life treating soldiers and civilians alike, Mary E. Walker received the Medal of Honor, the only woman ever to do so.
“There are eye-openers all throughout the exhibits,” said Pat Sigle, 63, a volunteer at the museum.
One was Cathay Williams. A former slave, Williams assumed a new identity as William Cathay and enlisted in the Army. As a member of the 38th Infantry, she was assigned to garrison duty in the New Mexico Territory. She has the distinction of being the only female Buffalo Soldier, the name given to members of all-African American Army units formed after the Civil War.
In the World War I exhibit, a mannequin wears the green coat and skirt of the Radio Corps, another the royal blue of the Signal Corps, and a third a nurse’s white uniform and brilliant red cape. Nurses’ duties could be hazardous; many volunteers in the Women’s Nursing Corps served near the front tending wounded soldiers and facing artillery barrages and the horrors of mustard gas attacks.
Although women were welcome in these roles, they were strictly limited as auxiliary members and contract workers attached to the military. Because they were not considered part of the armed services, they were not eligible for veterans’ benefits regardless of the danger they faced. Yet despite these restrictions, they volunteered.
Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts dedicated herself to redressing this injustice. On the wall nearby, I read her vow: “I was resolved that our women would not again serve with the Army without the same protection the men got.”
World War II ushered in great changes. The need for women to serve as clerks, drivers, cooks and typists in areas all over the world led to the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942. Among the several World War II exhibits is a re-creation of barracks at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where many women were trained. Two models in Army uniform sit on bunks with a gas mask nearby and a “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships” poster on the wall.
Still, women in the WAAC weren’t considered part of the armed services, either. They laundered their own clothes and could be charged for any replacement clothing. If they were sick or wounded, they received only limited Veterans’ Administration benefits.
The pressure to truly include women in the armed forces reached a critical stage in 1943, when the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was formed, giving women equal rank and benefits. Congresswoman Rogers’s vow finally bore fruit.
In the World War II exhibits, the walls are covered with photos of WACs training and marching, repairing truck engines and serving food. Later, jobs expanded to radio operators, airplane mechanics and sheet-metal workers. We stopped to admire a patriotic poster of a proud mother and her two soldiers — a son and daughter in uniform.
A nearby display depicted two women standing at a table sorting mail. These women were part of the 6888th Postal Battalion, an all-African American unit that served in England and France. Their role was to unclog the enormous backlog of mail that accumulated at bases in Britain in the buildup to the D-Day invasion. The battalion’s motto was “No Mail, Low Morale.”
Women have been fully integrated into the Army since 1978, when the WAC was disbanded, and now serve in the same units as men.
In recent conflicts, women have found themselves in complex roles, particularly when serving in countries where women and men are segregated. A painting depicts Maj. Sherry Lynn Womack, a physician assistant, providing care to a child in Afghanistan in 2002. She was one of the Army medical providers assigned to work specifically with women and children because of cultural sensitivities.
Female soldiers also increasingly find themselves in combat situations. A display illustrates the role played by Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and fellow soldiers in her company during a 2005 attack on their convoy in Iraq. For her role in the attack, Hester became the first woman ever to be awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.
In the hallway just outside the galleries, a tree adorned with metal tags caught my eye. I missed it on the way in, but perhaps it served as a better way to end the tour. These are the dog tags of the more than 100 female soldiers who have fallen since 9/11.
“When you see this tree, it really hits you — it really brings it home,” Sigle said. “We owe them all our thanks.”
Lee is a freelance writer living in Virginia Beach.
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The museum is located in Fort Lee, Va., but many lodging and dining options are located in nearby Petersburg.
Hilton Garden Inn Richmond South/Southpark
800 Southpark Blvd., Colonial Heights
Located 10 minutes from Fort Lee off Interstate 95. Six floors, 155 rooms. No pets. Free parking. Restaurant open for breakfast and dinner. Rooms from $124.
The Ragland Mansion
205 S. Sycamore St., Petersburg
Italianate antebellum bed and breakfast fully restored with lovely solarium and ballroom. Nine guest rooms, each with a private bath. Children and pets by prior arrangement. Peak rates (April 1-Oct. 31) from $75.
407-409 Cockade Alley, Petersburg
Traditional British public house with bar and lounge bar (dining room) located in two 200-year-old buildings. Exposed beams, stone floor and brass rail at bar. No televisions. Pub fare from $9. Entrees from $14.
Andrade’s International Restaurant
7 Bollingbrook St., Petersburg
Latin-American restaurant featuring cuisine from Bolivia, Peru, Cuba, Mexico and Spain. Located in Old Towne Petersburg. Entrees from $11. Dinner enchilada combos from $10.
Alexander’s Fine Food
101 W. Bank St., Petersburg
Small restaurant that has been around for 30 years. Offers Greek, Italian and American cuisine. Entrees from $11.
U.S. Army Women’s Museum
2100 A. Avenue, Fort Lee
The museum is located within Fort Lee. Visitors must stop at the welcome center to the right of the Lee Avenue gate for a visitor’s pass. Valid ID is required (state driver’s license, passport, etc.). Once a background check is complete, visitors are issued a day pass. Museum gallery open to the public Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. -5 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Free admission. Visitors may also want to check out the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum next door.