by Lisa M. Stone
One of the national radio shows devoted Monday’s program to a discussion of whether Americans have lost a sense of what Memorial Day means (opinions on that vary), which led me to reflecton how the role of women in relation to the military has evolved. That, and a call I had from a gentleman last week who explained to me that Title IX, the 40th anniversary of which we will celebrate this year, is what made it possible for women to enter the military academies and serve as soldiers.
Some historians say that the first Memorial Day observance was in 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., former racetrack where hundreds of Union soldiers had been buried in a mass grave. The freed men and women (and children) reinterred the soldiers in separate graves, erected a fence, and honored the fallen soldiers.
In the early years after the Civil War, only northern states observed what was then called Decoration Day in late May; it wasn’t until after World War I that the day became an opportunity to honor those who died in any U.S. war. Or rather, to honor all men who fell in war. The role of women was to do the honoring. A noble role, but not sufficient – and arguably misleading. Women have always died in war as well, whether from disease (which until very recent wars is why most soldiers died as well) contracted while nursing soldiers, or from stray fire. Or, some would say, of broken hearts. What’s more, the burdens taken on by wives, sisters and mothers left behind enabled the country to continue to function.
We’ve all heard of Rosie the Riveter and how after the war women were forced out of the factories and other workplaces, to make room for returning veterans. Yet even as Rosie worked on the home front, thousands of women were nurses, WAVES, and aviators (also known as “Fly Girls”). Their participation in military activities arguably did as much to transform societal views of women’s abilities as that of the thousands of Rosies --- and also arguably contributed to the regression and repression of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as men (over)reacted to the threat of women’s autonomy.
Fast forward 50 years, and Legal Voice’s client Col. Grethe Cammermeyer stands up for lesbian and gay service members by resisting her discharge from the service. She is reinstated, and continues to this day to advocate for service members. Progress!
And yet --- in some ways women in the military are in an endless game of “Mother May I?,” with as many steps back (or sideways) as forward. While hundreds of thousands of women are in military service today, thousands of them suffer sexual assault, often at the hands of their fellow soldiers or officers. For the privilege of serving, they endure the agony of rape.
Ten years into the current wars, women serve in almost all aspects of the military. But the last step toward eliminating “almost” – being in combat – is officially forbidden. Setting aside that the distinction or lack thereof between “officially” being in combat and actually being in a combat zone is virtually nil, that prohibition stands as a barrier to women’s equality and economic security.
Which is why I was glad to see the lawsuit filed by two women officers, demanding that they be allowed to formally and officially lay down their lives for their country. Glad in an ironic way. These women seek to risk their lives to the same extent as the men beside whom they serve.
That’s worth a memorial.