Women at War – Meet Two Authors Who Are Shining the Spotlight on America’s Forgotten Female Soldiers 

Molly Pritcher tended to the guns at the Battle of Monmouth. She is one of America’s first female war heroes. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It was as if wed been erased out of the pages of history. [We] started thinking about how to change that.”

WHAT DO Deborah Sampson, Josette Dermody Wingo and Barbara Dulinsky all have in common? All are women – and all are American war heroes.

Sampson was a Massachusetts schoolteacher who carried a musket during the Revolution. Wingo served as a navy gunner’s mate during World War Two. Dulinsky was a Marine Corps sergeant and survivor of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Yet each of these women’s contributions to U.S. history, along with those of hundreds of others, have long been overlooked by scholars, journalists and the wider public.

Authors Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow set out to change that with their new book It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan.

Both former armed forces officers themselves, the duo scoured two-and-a-half centuries of historical records to compile the experiences of America’s unknown female spies, surgeons, soldiers and sailors. The result is a 376-page collection that chronicles the feats of ordinary women who accomplished the extraordinary.

MilitaryHistoryNow.com recently caught up with Bell and Crow to talk to them about their book and the bravery and sacrifices of American women in uniform. Here’s what they had to say.

According to legend, Nancy Hart fended off Tories and Redcoats in the backwoods of Georgia during the War of Independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: Why this book? And why now?

Jerri: The idea for the book came about gradually, over the course of two years. In 2013, Ron Capps, director of the Veterans Writing Project, had noticed that women veterans attending our creative writing seminars weren’t speaking up or participating as much as the men—or even the civilian women who were military family members. We discussed the need for a space just for military women to tell their stories, and he asked me to create a curriculum for it. Our existing curriculum was built around examples of creative writing by writers who happened to be veterans—all but one men. I started looking for writing by women who had served in uniform. Then, in 2014, civilian novelist Cara Hoffman wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which she noted that women veterans’ stories were not part of the culture. Memoirist Kayla Williams responded in the Los Angeles Review of Books with a short bibliography of contemporary memoirs and books about military women. By then I’d discovered hundreds of documents and books military women had written. Why weren’t they part of the canon of war writing, in some way? Why hadn’t we read any of them in accession training? It made me angry. It was as if we’d been erased out of the pages of history. I started thinking about how to change that.

Pauline Cushman was a New Orleans actress who spied for the Union during the Civil War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

Jerri: Two of the books I kept returning to were former Marine Tracy Crow’s memoir Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine, and the anthology that she edited, Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present. It was clear that Tracy understood the need for military women to tell their stories, and the risks and rewards inherent in doing so. It was also clear that she had an eye for a good story. I thought she’d be just the person to join me in sorting through the bibliography of military women’s writing that I’d accumulated. So, I wrote to her and asked to meet.

Tracy: What Jerri didnt know about me at the time was that I’d made a decision to explore my ability to produce work outside of the military genre. So, while I agreed to meet with her in May 2015 for lunch at a D.C. restaurant, I had no intention of joining her on another military project. But checkmate — she knew I was definitely a sucker for a good story, especially good women’s stories, and as I listened to her tell the stories of Harriet Tubman, Cornelia Fort and others, I was silently pleading, “pick me, you need me on this project!” She really didn’t need me, I assure you. But I’m grateful that she thought so, anyway. It’s been a wonderful partnership experience. She’s taught me a great deal.

The “Hello Girls” were volunteer telephone operators who served in France during World War One. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: The study of military history has long been a discipline dominated by men. Similarly, men have overwhelmingly been the audience of most popular military history. How do you see this changing

Jerri: The U.S. military has long been a profession dominated by men. That’s changing, and military history will change to reflect that. When the Army Chief of Staff released his 2017 Professional Reading List in August, my Twitter feed exploded with criticism because not one of the 111 books on that list was written by a woman. The Chief of Naval Operations’ 150-book list contains four titles of which a woman is the author or co-author. Two are books on ethics, one is a book on organizational failure, and the fourth is a husband-wife memoir of a navy pilot’s experience as a POW in Vietnam. Not only is the writing of women historians overlooked on both lists, not one of the books is about the experiences of military women. Whatever the intent, the message sent — Lima Charlie — is that senior military leaders have no interest in the military scholarship and insights of women, and still don’t consider the topic of military women and their experiences important enough to merit serious consideration by military and national security professionals. It’s past time for this to change.

TracyI want to echo that it’s past time for this to change. After the release of our book, and the discovery yet again how underrepresented women’s contributions and voices are on these reading lists, I sent a few nudges up the chain toward the service branch leaders. Either the under-representation continues to happen because, as Jerri states, senior military leaders have no interest in women’s insights, or the under-representation continues because of the traditional patriarchal culture. Either reason says a lot about the prevailing attitudes of senior military leaders and none of it good.

A U.S. Army nurse in a Normandy field hospital, June, 1944. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: Who are some of the reallife historical figures this book explores?

Jerri: Women served in America’s armed forces, officially or unofficially, in every war from the Revolution on. We had more remarkable women to choose from than we dreamed we’d find when we began the project. We included writing by some relatively well-known women: Deborah Sampson (American Revolution), Harriet Tubman and Belle Boyd (Civil War), and Charity Adams Earley (World War Two). But we didn’t want to make the book what historians call a “contribution history” — the stories of a few women whose leadership and contributions were unusual or remarkable. Contribution history reinforces the mistaken idea that only “exceptional” women are able to display military competence and leadership. We included the writing of “ordinary” military women because we recognize that their contributions to national security were just as important as the contributions of the ordinary men who have served, and because we wanted all women currently serving to be able to see themselves and their experiences of military service reflected in the history.

Tracy: I saw a television promo recently about a program that will highlight various achievements by women, deemed the “firsts” in their fields. While I applaud any program that celebrates the achievements of women, I can also see why these stories don’t always foster an inclusive message. Yes, it’s important that we recognize the aspirational leaders in various fields, but the stories that tend to influence us most, I think anyway, are the ones of seemingly ordinary people who one day choose to do something extraordinary. It was also important to both of us that this book not be viewed as a warmongering collection. We wish no one had to experience the brutality and horror of war, but we feel equally passionate about revealing why since the birth of this nation women contributed to the national defense of the nation by going to war, and did so long before social acceptance of their military service.

Cornelia Clark Fort was the first American pilot to encounter Japanese planes en route to Pearl Harbor. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: Is there any individual from the book that you find especially inspiring and why?

Tracy: I have such a soft spot for the story of Cornelia Fort, one of the first WASPs —Women Airforce Service Pilots — who ferried and tested aircraft Stateside so that men could focus on combat flight missions overseas. Cornelia was already an accomplished civilian pilot before becoming one of the first WASPs, and she was airborne over Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941—she was one of the first to witness Japanese planes approaching. The Japanese planes opened fire on her plane, but she managed to land safely. What I admired most about Cornelia was her spirit, and her reasons for flying and serving her country. Sadly, her life was cut short during a training flight over Texas when a male pilot, breaking formation rules, decided to have a little fun and flew too close to her plane. His plane struck the left wing of hers. She was killed in the crash.

Jerri: I admired different things about each woman whose writing we included. I was awed by the courage under fire, sense of responsibility, and natural leadership that military nurses displayed from the Civil War on. Some women, like Senator Margaret Chase Smith and Charity Adams Earley, demanded as much gender and racial equality as they could force out of the men in power in the armed forces; others, like Deborah Sampson and Sarah Emma Edmonds, simply took the jobs they wanted even if it meant masquerading as men. Being an intelligence officer, I loved the derring-do stories of women spies. And I admired many of the women’s candor, humour and writing style. One of the voices that spoke loudest to me early in the project was that of former Army officer Sylvia Bowersox, who perfectly expressed my feelings of cynicism about the war in Iraq—a war that began while I was still on active duty—in her essay “This War Can’t Be All Bad.”

Military nurses are liberated from a Japanese POW camp at Santo Tomas in the Philippines. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: What were some of the unexpected things you learned while researching the book?

Jerri: Tracy and I had planned only to include a few lines of historical context in each chapter of the book. When we started digging into the research, though, we were stunned to realize that we didn’t know our own history. Military women’s contributions were denigrated, dismissed, or ignored altogether during most of the three decades in which Tracy and I were on active duty; when commands trotted out a few exceptional women to celebrate during Women’s History Month, it often made things worse. “Why do women get a special month? Why not have a Mens History Month?” we heard, over and over. The roles and contributions of black women, and other women of colour, have been doubly suppressed and ignored. It’s not too much to say that black women have been leading the way in women’s military service since Sally St. Claire was killed in action at the Battle of Savannah in 1778.

Tracy: And we learned that the stories we’d been told about women’s participation in the national defense were dead wrong. Our research dispelled three myths that we’d heard about repeatedly when we were on active duty. The first was that women only served in administrative and support roles until very recently. In fact, women have fought and died for America, often in uniform, since the American Revolution. The second was that women’s integration was a “feminazi social experiment” forced on the services from outside. But military women themselves have demanded to participate in the defense of the nation. We have been the ones insisting all along that qualified women should be fully integrated into all branches and specialties, because we know what we’re capable of doing and want the opportunity to do it. And the third was that men “allowed” the integration of women into the armed forces. Women joined the armed forces even when they were legally prohibited from doing so. We demanded greater roles at every turn. We fought opposition from society, our families, and the men we served with for every single inch of ground that we’ve gained. We’ve defied expectations, earned respect, gained support for full integration from elected officials and senior leaders, and persisted in demands for equal opportunity and equal responsibility.

A U.S. army paratrooper wears a headscarf to meet with Afghan villagers in 2012. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: Are there any nations (either today or in the past) that you think the United States could learn from when it comes to women serving in the military?

Jerri: I think it would be worthwhile for military historians to devote serious study to the training and accomplishments of the British women who served in the Special Operations Executive in World War Two, especially the 40 or so who went into France undercover to serve with the Resistance as radio operators, trainers and saboteurs. The accomplishments of Russian and Soviet military women in both world wars are also worth mining for lessons learned. 

Tracy: At the risk of being cheeky, I’d like first for the United States to study and recognize its own history. Norway recently created its first all-female special operations force called Jegertroppen or “Hunter Troops”, which operates internationally in ways similar to our Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. No doubt we could also learn from experiences of women who have served in the Israeli Defense Forces. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that American military women are setting examples for others.

F-15 pilots at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: In recent years, weve seen women combat pilots, women Army Rangers and even women serving on submarines. Where does the story of women in the military go from here? What are some of the barriers yet to overcome

Tracy: Frankly, I believe the story of women in the military will go in whatever direction women choose to take it. And I’m not sure I fully believed that until we completed this book. Sure,there will be physical obstacles to overcome for those women who wish to serve in special ops or as infantry officers, but as our book proves, women will not be denied — not for long anyway.

Jerri: I’m waiting to see a woman serving as the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Whoever she is, she’s out there in uniform somewhere already, polishing her boots, hitting the gym, doing her job, and trying her best to excel every day. But I think that right now we’re seeing some pushback against recent gains in opportunities for women to serve in ground combat. The opposition is sometimes vocal, sometimes written into policy in insidious ways, and sometimes still takes the form of sexual violence against women in uniform. The Marines United scandal is just the latest, most technologically-driven form of that pushback. But what the history of women’s integration into the armed forces demonstrates is that, after the inevitable opposition to an increase in women’s participation in the national defense is beaten down, and after stereotypes and myths are overturned, women in once-unthinkable roles simply become the “new normal.” Tracy and I hope that Its My Country Too will show military women, leaders in national defense, and the American public that it has always been normal for women to be patriots —- and warriors.

Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow are the authors of It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. 

Bell is a retired naval officer and the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. 

Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (Nebraska, 2012) and On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story (Potomac Books, 2015). 

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