As we walked down the hallway at the assisted living facility where my father-in-law now lives, they looked out at us. Their faces lined the wall, veterans all, captured in nicely framed photos and identified by name, branch of service and when they served. World War II mostly.
There was Bill, my father-in-law, photographed recently in his ever-present flannel shirt and baseball cap. Others wore their wartime uniforms, smiling 20-somethings in faded photos. There was Joe, Vin, Andy, Elizabeth, Muriel …. Huh? Elizabeth? Muriel? Helen?
As I did a double take, I noticed that of the 20 or so veterans pictured, fully a third of them were women.
Real women all. Biological females—not Chelsea Manning types—in uniforms.
One of WWII’s most famous icons was Rosie the Riveter. She represented some 19-million heroic American wives, moms, sisters, and daughters who powered America’s industrial machine. Proving they could, indeed, replace their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and sons, they helped America's factories ramp up production of wartime materiel to levels that overwhelmed the axis powers and enabled the Allies to win the war.
Given those massive numbers it’s easy to overlook all those other women who served their country—in uniform—as WACs, WAVEs, SPARs, WASPs and more. Elizabeth and Muriel and Helen were among almost 400,000 women serving in every branch of the service and in countless other organizations, assigned to every combat theater.
They provided critical support, nursing the wounded and dying, driving ambulances and jeeps, piloting planes, and more. Some, stationed in the Philippines, were famously captured by the Japanese when the garrison at Corregidor fell. Known as the Angels of Corregidor and the Battling Belles of Bataan, they became Prisoners of War. A lucky handful barely escaped, thanks to evacuation in a Navy submarine.
These women of WWII earned Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and Legions of Merit. Some died in service to their nation. They all earned the gratitude of their countrymen.
Like their sisters on the factory floor, they helped win history’s costliest war and in doing so, shattered traditions and cultural roles of their day. Ultimately their remarkable service led the transformation of the US armed forces into one where women and men are all welcome today.
It’s easy to lose sight of significant historical events that have had a major impact on our lives. It’s easy to take them for granted. Sometimes we suffer a kind of self-induced myopia, incapable of looking much beyond our own narrow experience or the most recent past, perhaps preferring to look ahead.
But amidst all the discussion surrounding feminism today, it might be wise to reach back into the not-quite-yet-forgotten past and take a moment to consider these still living pioneers, these grandmothers and great grandmothers who wore fatigues, flying suits, and combat boots. With nothing like a modern women's movement behind them, without the networking and the support groups, and going up against monumental odds, Elizabeth, Muriel, Helen, and their sisters managed to orchestrate a cultural shift of tectonic proportions.
In a way, they—we—won two wars in 1945; one of them right here at home.