Veterans Day is an occasion to recall the service of our troops. But women’s stories have often been absent from those recollections. Works of fiction and nonfiction, memoirs (such as Mary Jennings Hegar’s), documentaries (including “The Invisible War”) and dramas (such as “Blood Stripe”) have helped show this side of the armed forces. Still, myths about female veterans endure. Kayla Williams, who wrote a memoir about serving as an Army linguist in Iraq, remembers an infantryman who was “sure that women troops would be flown by helicopter to shower every three days.” Here are some of the most persistent misconceptions.
The National Veterans Foundation reported this year that, because of stereotypes about veterans, perhaps developed from movies and television, “when most people think of ‘veterans,’ they think of men.” A 2014 report from Disabled American Veterans noted “the enduring perception that a woman who comes to VA for services is not a veteran herself, but a male veteran’s wife, mother, or daughter.”
Congress established a regular women’s component in all branches of the armed forces in 1948 but capped women’s participation at 2 percent of the total force. This kept the numbers of female veterans proportionally low until the cap was lifted incrementally, beginning in 1973, to enable the creation of an all-volunteer force. Women now make up 20 percent of new recruits, 15 percent of the active-duty force and 18 percent of the reserve and National Guard. Almost 280,000 women have served in Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. More than 2 million veterans — about 9 percent of the total veteran population of 21 million — are women.
Many hold the misperception that “official military policy has long kept female service members away from the front lines,” as a History Channel essay put it. And it’s true that two provisions in the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 prohibited Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps women from combat Air Force sorties and naval vessels (they were already barred from direct ground combat). In 1998, an ambiguous Defense Department rule closed noncombat positions to women if the risk of exposure to direct fire, combat or capture equaled or exceeded that experienced by combat units in the same theater of operations.
But women have fought for this country as long as it has existed. In April 1775, a 35-year-old mother of six named Prudence Cummings Wright formed a women’s militia in Pepperell, Mass . Dressed in men’s clothing and armed, the women captured a suspected British courier at the bridge over the Nashua River and delivered him and his documents to the rebellion. At the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776, Margaret Corbin took over her husband’s gun when he was killed. Disabled by grapeshot that nearly severed her arm, she was placed in the Continental Army’s Invalid Regiment at West Point, drew a lifetime military pension and was reinterred at West Point with full military honors in 1926. In 1778, a Creole woman named Sally St. Clare fought disguised as a man and became the first woman to die in action in the service of America. And historians estimate that at least 200 women disguised themselves as men to fight on both sides in the Civil War.
Since the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, American women have served overseas, under fire and at the front lines in every major U.S. military conflict.
In the 1990s, conservative activist Elaine Donnelly accused Rep. Patricia Schroeder and “her feminist friends at the Pentagon” of trying to “undermine readiness and morale for the sake of social engineering” by opening combat billets to women “to advance the career ambitions of a few.” This idea had staying power: In 2013, retired Army Gen. Jerry Boykin repeated a version of it to CNN. It recurs almost daily in the comments on military-related news sites, blogs and social-media pages.
In fact, the activism of military women is what drove the expansion of their roles. Doctor Mary Edwards Walker, awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865 for her work as a military surgeon and spy, wrote in 1859 that women should serve as soldiers. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), who served in the Red Cross in Europe during World War I, and Rep. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who later joined the Air Force, crafted the 1948 legislation establishing permanent women’s components in the armed forces. Hundreds of women in uniform assigned to personnel commands lobbied quietly for incrementally greater opportunities. Navy electrician Yona Owens, Army helicopter pilot Mary Jennings Hegar and other military women even sued the U.S. government to open chances for women to serve legally on naval combatants and in direct ground combat.
We’ve come a long way since 1979, when former Marine and future Navy secretary Jim Webb articulated this idea in a misogynistic rant in Washingtonian. Still, in September 2015, the Marine Corps sought an exemption from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s 2013 direction to integrate women fully into every branch of the armed forces; the Marines cited a study that claimed to have found mixed-gender units slower, less lethal and unable to evacuate casualties as rapidly as all-male units. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus rejected the Marine Corps request to exclude women from infantry billets.
The 1994 Defense Women’s Health Research Program, a $40 million initiative that funded research targeted at improving the health and performance of women in the armed forces, demonstrated more than a decade ago that women equal men in their ability to tolerate gravity forces, respond to stress and survive in extremes of heat and cold. A 2015 Army study found no reason to exclude women from any military occupational specialty as long as they measured up to newly established physical standards for their jobs. A few women have already met the physical, academic and leadership standards for the Army’s demanding Ranger School and the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course.
In a 2014 study by the veterans advocacy group Got Your 6, almost half of the adult Americans who were shown a photo of a man who appeared to be homeless identified him as a veteran. The stereotype persists: a white man, often a Vietnam-era veteran, panhandling with a cardboard sign at an intersection and sleeping under a highway overpass or on the streets. He has long-term mental health issues and/or substance use disorders. Veterans advocate Lily Casura found in a nationwide survey of thousands of female veterans that even these veterans, 40 percent of whom had themselves experienced homelessness, repeated such details when asked to describe a homeless veteran.
In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs has found that female veterans — including those with children — are the fastest-growing share of homeless veterans. Based on VA estimates, between 20,000 and 40,000 female veterans are homeless. But most of these women, especially those with kids or histories of trauma, don’t sleep on the streets or find shelter placements. They prefer to couch-surf with friends and relatives. Casura discovered in her survey that female veterans are two to four times as likely as their civilian counterparts to experience homelessness.