Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University.
Code girls, fly girls, rocket girls, lab girls, girls of Atomic City, the Harvard Observatory or NASA — many groundbreaking books have recently been published about American women hidden from history, who performed extraordinary feats of intelligence and perseverance but whose accomplishments have been overlooked, unremembered or blotted out. Now add to that list of forgotten heroines the indomitable wives of pilots shot down and captured in North Vietnam, who fought the governments of both the United States and North Vietnam to secure their husbands’ safe return. Dramatically told by Heath Hardage Lee, “The League of Wives” reveals a story as exhilarating and inspiring as its predecessors.
During the long years of the Vietnam War, hundreds of American airmen became POWs or were listed as MIA, missing in action. Defying their training in the etiquette of behavior for the ideal officer’s spouse, their wives individually sought information and action from officials in the Red Cross, the State Department and the Pentagon. They were told to go home, leave the negotiations to the government and say nothing to the media for fear of endangering their husbands. Indeed, they were often perceived as “hysterical females who just needed a shoulder to cry on now and then.” Even Sen. Bob Dole, a sympathizer and supporter, spoke condescendingly of “the feelings these girls have occasionally of the need to be reassured.”
Raised to be “second-class citizens,” Lee comments, at first “most military wives barely noticed” that they were being patronized and “did not often complain.” But by the end of 1966 some had realized they were being ignored and obstructed. As news about POWs being tortured and paraded for propaganda began to appear in the press, they needed action instead of reassurance. Sybil Stockdale, wife of the commanding officer of the Screaming Eagles fighter squadron at the Coronado Navy base, whose husband, Jim, was shot down and held captive at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, recognized that individual voices were ineffective and sent a letter to the wives of senior-ranking POWs in all military branches. On Oct. 7, 1966, the Navy wives started meeting monthly to share news, and a year later, with other POW and MIA wives around the country, they officially set up the League of Wives, creating an organization that gave them leverage. Initially a “reluctant sorority,” the wives began to lobby, strategize and publicize their goals. Together they would become a strong coalition of “warrior queens who fought for their husbands’ freedom . . . and won.”
Lee combines a concise narrative of the war with close-ups of several leaders of the women. When Phyllis Galanti’s husband was shot down in 1966, the shy housewife morphed into an activist known as “Fearless Phyllis,” a “star negotiator” who used her college background in French to communicate with the North Vietnamese chargé d’affaires in Stockholm. Jane Denton was a “traditional, conservative wife” at first “terrified of deviating from protocol in any way,” who learned how to circulate petitions, meet with Quaker pacifists and raise money. Louise Mulligan gave an electrifying speech in Constitution Hall on May 1, 1970: “May Day! May Day! . . . Hear our call of distress and the CRY from within the walls of the prison camps.”
From 1966 to 1973, the League of Wives expanded alongside the rise of the women’s liberation movement and the emergence of feminist groups like the National Organization for Women, but the wives didn’t think of themselves as feminist. “Feminism, in the minds of most conservative military wives,” Lee notes, “was associated with the left and Communism. . . . Their fight was focused on their husbands’ plight, not on their own status.” Yet to be working with other women for a humanitarian cause was a radicalizing activity, a source of confidence and pride. The league brought out skills and talents its members didn’t know they had, including spying on the enemy and sending coded letters; and it was transformative to be using their brains, as well as their domestic and social skills, to serve their country
In February 1973, when the first 116 POWs came home, the men and their wives were celebrated “like royalty.” The Nixons hosted the “gala to end all galas” at the White House. Bob Hope, John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr. and Phyllis Diller entertained the crowd, and the president proposed a toast “to the first ladies of America.”
And then it was over. The wives, Lee writes, gave up “hard-earned power and influence” and adjusted to having a long-absent husband back home again. Louise Mulligan, who had been “in charge of everyone and everything for so long,” found that her husband didn’t even want her to drive. In their joint memoir, Sybil and Jim Stockdale admitted that “it was going to be hard if not impossible to ever again find the outside challenge, excitement, and fulfillment each of us, in our own spheres, knew in the dark days of war.” That was an important acknowledgment for women, too: that even danger and tragedy could create a shared sense of camaraderie, purpose and triumph.
Most of the wives successfully managed the transition back into their domestic roles, and their story faded away. But Lee has brought it back to light, and Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights to film it. Hopefully, the example of their courage will embolden other potential heroines to claim their power — but also keep their influence.
the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home
By Heath Hardage Lee
322 pp. $28.99