The modern history of women in the U.S. military, by two former servicewomen who also worked at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee (And If I Perish: Frontline Army Nurses in World War II, 2003, etc.) begin with the volunteer nurses of the World War I era, documenting what becomes a repeated strain in the book: the struggle against a male-dominated hierarchy, both civilian and military. At first the arguments seemed reasonable enough—protecting women by keeping them away from combat zones. That meant putting them in auxiliary units separate from the actual armed service; it also meant denying them equal pay or veterans’ benefits. World War II exposed servicewomen to more increasingly dangerous conditions and let them prove what they could contribute. Eventually, a series of incident exposed the system’s bias. For example, members of the Women’s Army Corps torpedoed en route to service as officers’ secretaries in North Africa were told they had to replace their lost uniforms at their own expense, since they weren’t regular Army personnel. At the end of the war, returning WACs and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) found they were expected to return to a submissive role; some suggested that they sacrifice the opportunity for college to make room for male veterans. Using interviews with women from all eras, the authors harvest tales of training, bravery under appalling conditions and the pride of service despite the resistance to their aspirations. Ample credit goes to the pioneers, notably Oveta Culp Hobby, first commander of WAC, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who led the fight for servicewomen in Congress. In the modern era, military women are permitted a more equal role, yet they still face discrimination, sexual harassment and even rape, a theme that dominates the final chapters. Ultimately, the lengthy narrative is a mixed bag. Some pages ring with authenticity and passion; others plod endlessly. Nonetheless, the authors have found a treasure trove of untold history, and they do not pull their punches in setting it out.
Heavy going at times but worth the effort.