From the Desk of Jerri Bell: Women’s History in the Military

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The following is a contribution from Jerri Bell, co-editor of It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (July 2017). Bell is a retired naval officer and the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. Below she writes about what Armed Forces Day means for her as a female veteran.

Just before Armed Forces Day in 2015, I pulled a slim hardback book off the “hold” bookshelf at my local public library, pushed aside the interlibrary loan slip, and flipped through the pages. For Women in the United States Military: An Annotated Bibliography, military archivist and historian Judith Bellafaire had collected a list of more than seven hundred documents and books written by women in or supporting the US military, spanning every period of US military history back to the American Revolution. The list, published in 2011, didn’t include even half of the women veterans’ memoirs I’d read from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bellafaire had grouped the entries by war, and had introduced each section with brief historical and historiographical commentary. Although I’d served twenty years in the Navy, none of the information was the least bit familiar.

That was when it hit me: Military women don’t know our own history. We don’t even know that we have one.

Former Marine Tracy Crow and I had initially conceived of our book It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan as an anthology of military women’s writing. We proposed to introduce each chapter with a brief paragraph of historical context for the writing. We thought that the difficult part would be finding something written by a woman in each of the services (plus the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, where appropriate). This turned out to be the case only with the Coast Guard, and in the case of the “Forgotten War”—the Korean conflict. Dealing with the historical context of the pieces we planned to anthologize proved to be much more challenging.

The two most comprehensive works on women’s military history, Brigadier General Jeanne Holm’s history Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (Novato: Presidio, 1987) and Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York: Anchor, 2010), were both dated. Women’s participation in the US armed forces changed rapidly in the five years since Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee published their books. And both books were scholarly: distilling the information down to something that would contextualize the pieces we’d chosen to anthologize took days of reading and note-taking, hours of discussion over Facebook instant messaging (Tracy is in North Carolina and I’m in Maryland), dozens of drafts, and a frantic e-mail to editor Tom Swanson last May explaining that we were still thirty thousand words over our contract but we couldn’t possibly cut anything more without irreparably damaging the narrative arc that we’d uncovered. Tom shocked us when he gave us permission to send him the longer manuscript. “Just cut as much as you can and try to make sure the writing’s tight,” he said. He earned our undying gratitude when accepted the manuscript without asking for any other cuts.

Emotional involvement in the history posed a greater challenge for me. Our brief classes in naval history at Naval Officer Candidate School in 1988 had included nothing—not one word—about the contributions of women. We didn’t discuss the yeomen (female) who enlisted in the First World War to “free a man to fight.” We didn’t learn about the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) who volunteered in the Second World War. Nobody told us about the women a few years senior to us who were breaking new ground by proving themselves in surface warfare and naval aviation even before laws prohibiting women from serving on naval combatants and in combat aviation were lifted. Some of my classmates were surprised a few months later to find themselves standing watch wearing loaded 45-caliber pistols to safeguard information they collected through the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS). They make us wear sidearms! We, and our history, had simply been invisible. We hadn’t seen ourselves in the stories of John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, Admirals Chester Nimitz and Bill Halsey, former president John F. Kennedy, General Chesty Puller (my drill instructor’s personal hero), or astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Women of color were doubly invisible. And we didn’t even know that we needed to see ourselves reflected in military history.

Reading about Tailhook brought back memories of signing endless reams of statements that neither I nor anyone whom I supervised had attended the infamous 1991 conference. I hadn’t read Naval Academy graduate and former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb’s essay “Women Can’t Fight” for more than two decades; I had to take some long walks and write in my journal to process anger I hadn’t realized I’d been suppressing all that time. Collecting and sorting through stories of mothers in uniform reminded Tracy of the harassment and discrimination she faced as one of the first Marines not automatically discharged upon becoming pregnant. Our messages stretched into dozens of pages of wrathful, righteous indignation.

Writing It’s My Country Too also lifted us up and gave us new perspective on our own military service. How much more might we have accomplished, I asked Tracy, if we’d known whose shoulders we were standing on when we served?

Military women need the example of Army nurse Beatrice MacDonald, who returned to service at the front lines after she lost an eye to German shrapnel in World War I. They deserve the opportunity to laugh with WAVES petty officer Josie Dermody Wingo, whose memoir of teaching naval gunners how to aim at enemy aircraft made us shout and high-five in the quiet library of the Women in Military Service for America Foundation and brought several archivists running to see if we were okay. They, too, should cry tears of joy upon reading about the liberation of Army and Navy nurses held prisoner for three years in Manila by the Japanese Army. They will admire and wonder at the worn-out soles on the shoes of nurses who hiked eight hundred miles behind German lines to return to service after their airplane went off-course and crashed in the mountains of Albania.

The theme of this year’s Armed Forces Day is “Courageous Steadfast Protectors.” Tracy and I are grateful that University of Nebraska Press has helped us to share stories of how military women also served this nation as courageous, steadfast protectors—how we, in the words of President Harry S. Truman on the first Armed Forces Day, have also “served the Nation with courage and devotion both in war and in peace.”