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Women and War 1941-1975

by Talya Schneider



 ‘It takes a war for women to break out of the home and to be granted human as opposed to female status’ [Beddoe D (1983].  Women have often throughout history played a subordinate role in society, but war has been instrumental in giving them a far more prominent status, both as substitute for men’s labour, and, more recently, in combatant roles. However, this change has rarely survives the end of conflict. Talya Schneider considers the effect of wars from the Second World War to the Vietnam War on the status of women. She concludes that their emancipation has been far more permanent in Vietnam than it has been in the United States.

Posted 26 April, 2005

Women and the Vietnam War
Vietnam and women’s empowerment



hroughout history, the roles of women in Western society have been largely determined by patriarchal values. As Kate Millett suggests in her book - written in 1969, the same period as the Vietnam War – ‘the image of women as we know it is an image created by men and fashioned to suit their needs’ (Millet: 1999, p46). Women have always been ‘encouraged to cultivate the virtues of domesticity, piety, purity and submissiveness’ (Boydston: 1991, p148). Characteristics such as violence are not deemed to be feminine, and are not an acceptable part of womanhood, and that is ultimately why war is considered to be a specifically male affair; ‘men make war’ (MacPherson: 1988, p489).

It is not only men who experience ‘real’ war

Even though it is realised that women are a part of war through their pain, a common belief even now is that ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed’ (internet: UNESCO, 7th December 2001). This expression, from the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, was first published after the Second World War in 1945, but has been re-circulated many times in the years since, due to its relevance even now. Although it is over half a century-old, little has changed: The American and British military forces are still composed of a relatively small number of women in relation to men (internet: NATO, 10th December 2001), and women who have served in the military have ‘historically, been ignored’ (MacPherson: 1988, p527). Due to inequalities such as these, the prominent belief that it is men, and men alone, who experience ‘real’ war, continues to be universally accepted.

A machinist applies her skill in an American factory, c 1940

However, as I will aim to show, the theory is not at all correct. Although information regarding the roles of women in war is not in abundance - whilst there are plenty of resources documenting the roles of men in the very same wars - it is becoming more and more apparent that women’s roles in these wars are of profound importance, not only for the countries they are fighting to protect, but for women as an oppressed gender.

The wars of the twentieth century, and especially those since the Second World War, have been effective in disproving the fallacy of war being a man’s domain. Since 1939 especially, women have been used to fill the positions that men have had to abandon due to their being drafted. The number of women who ventured out of the safety of their homes and into factories and other workplaces during World War Two is evident and it is these apparent changes that have altered, in many ways, the manner in which women are viewed in the public sphere of society at the present time.

At the time of the Vietnam War, and especially at the onset of the war, there was a scarcity of female members in the American Congress. In 1960 there were only sixteen women in Congress, although this had risen to thirty-six by 1975 (internet: Women in Congress, 11th December 2001). In 1969 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected on to Congress. In 1972, this same woman ran in the American Presidential election, but was not elected (internet: Shirley Chisholm, 7th December 2001).

The seeming triumphs of Chisholm, and women in Congress in general, are one way to illustrate the changing attitudes of the American people at the time of the Vietnam War. But by examining the roles of ‘average’ American women during this period and comparing these to Vietnamese women during the same period, the enormity of the alterations in social prejudice and ideology, in both America and Vietnam, may become truly apparent.

Women and the Vietnam War

At the beginning of the 1960s, provoked by an increasing fear in Communism and of the National Liberation Front’s increasing power, President John F Kennedy began to send American military personnel and helicopters into Vietnam (Buzzanco: 1999, p19). The Vietnam War, considered to be the biggest, and most unwarranted and immoral war of American history, has been described, not only as a racial war, but chiefly as a war of ‘male aggression against women and children’ (Sherry: 1995, p300). This would suggest that only women and children suffered the traumatic events of the war – although obviously men were fighting it - and this is definitely incorrect. Many innocent people, both male and female, were made victims of the years of bloodshed, and many women and children joined in the fighting in one way or another.

In 1964 when the bombing of Vietnam commenced, in America - a country with strong patriarchal values - the widespread feeling was that the Vietnam War was a ‘man’s war’. Whilst many men were drafted into the army and sent abroad to fight, most women remained in the safety of their home country, unafraid of falling bombs, ignorant of the terror that was ensuing over eight thousand miles away. However, though many of the U.S forces were male, a number of women were also sent to Vietnam to work.

American women served in Vietnam ‘as technicians, intelligence operators, air-flight ground controllers and WACs’ (Saywell: 1985, p226). Some were sent to be nurses and some were sent to work alongside Vietnamese civilians. In Myra McPherson’s (1988, p528) opinion, it was the women nurses who suffered more severely than the soldiers during the war. Whilst the soldiers were active, all the nurses could do was wait until the next injured parties were admitted. These women saw many fatalities. They also had to deal with the thousands of severely, and often permanently, wounded men.

There are no accurate statistics stating how many American women were present in Vietnam during the war. Figures vary from 10,000 onwards (Elshtain: 1990, p182). The estimated numbers of nurses who worked in Vietnam during the war has reached up to 55,000. Insultingly, only eight nurses’ names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (MacPherson: 1988, p526-529) and only seven are recorded as having been killed there, even though it is believed that others may have been (Saywell: 1985, p226).

The importance of the work that these women performed cannot be overlooked, even though they are not men, and did not fight in armed combat. However, their achievements have often been ignored when examining America’s part in the Vietnam War. And if not ignored, their roles have regularly been belittled, much like women’s roles in society. The nurses in Vietnam received much criticism. Some people referred to them as ‘Combat-boot feminists’, believing that they had only gone out to Vietnam to ‘bag’ a husband or be ‘hookers’. Some people even suggested that it was because they were lesbians (MacPherson: 1988, p530), the irony of which is blatantly obvious considering they were working alongside, and for, mainly men. This reaction to women’s achievements has emerged throughout history, and is no more than an attempt to ‘subordinate the individual to authoritarian control and openly denigrate women’ (internet: McCabe, 15th September 2000).

One woman who received a huge amount of criticism during the Vietnam War, and provoked an onslaught of criticism for the whole anti-war movement, was Jane Fonda (McPherson: 1988. p551). In 1972, Fonda went to North Vietnam to witness the effects that the fighting had had on the Vietnamese people. In a radio interview held during her visit, Fonda, who was publicly anti-war, talked about her shame in being American. She said that although it was ‘a war against Vietnam…the tragedy…(was)…America’s’ (internet: Jane Fonda, 10th December). Several years later, in a further interview, Fonda apologised and retracted her statements, saying that she had been ‘trying to help end the killing and the war’ but had been ‘thoughtless’ and ‘careless’ (internet: Jane Fonda, 10th December).

At the time, many American citizens, and especially Vietnam Veterans, criticised Fonda for her poor judgment, lack of patriotism and for speaking about something that she could not understand, having never fought there. Women who protested for an end to the war were often disparaged in this way. How could they be ‘anti-war’ if they never experienced war? But how could they experience war if the opportunity to fight in Vietnam was never an option for them?


Vietnam and women’s empowerment

Women’s involvement in the Vietnam War did not just occur in Vietnam. The fifteen-year period that American troops resided in Vietnam was not only a time of disquiet for the Vietnamese. In America there was growing unrest and concern amongst civilians with regard for the war and for civil rights. The anti-war and civil rights movements emphasized the injustices within society and through this, they paved the way for the Women’s movement, making public once hidden issues such as the inequality of women and black people.

Although the Women’s movement had existed prior to the 1960s, after the vote was won in America in 1920, and then again after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the movement seemed to dissolve and disappear. In 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment Act, which sought to enforce the equality of women in America, was introduced to Congress. The Act failed to be passed (McDowell: 1992, p209).

The Vietnam War, for many reasons, brought to attention how badly women were treated within society and once again, the popular feeling was that something more needed to be done for women, whilst at the same time rallying for the end of the war. The period was distinctive because ‘young men and women could be heard voicing the same protest and passion’ (Neustatter: 1990, p9). By protesting alongside men, women sought to prove that they could be as effective as their counterparts.

In 1963, due to the increasing demands of women, President Kennedy began to ‘assess women’s places in the economy, family and legal system’ by appointing a ‘Presidential Commission on the Status of Women’ (Buzzanco: 1999, p222). Shortly afterwards, the Equal Pay Act was passed. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act - which prohibited discrimination for black people in employment - was altered and Title VII was added, prohibiting both sexual and racial discrimination in employment (Castro: 1990, p263). This did not miraculously alter all of women’s problems, and even now inequalities are rife in American society.

There were many ways in which women began to revolt against their situation in America. In 1963, Betty Friedan published her book, The Feminine Mystique, in which she publicised the problem that women faced; ‘the problem with no name’ (Friedan: 1992, p310). This problem that had been kept silent for years was ‘simply the fact that American women…(were)…kept from growing to their full human capacities’ by the general oppression of housework and domesticity (Friedan: 1992, p318). In October 1966, Friedan, along with Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm (the first black Congresswoman) formed the National Organisation for Women (NOW) (Blum: 1991, p276). Their intention was to deal with the ongoing problem of women’s inequality by organising ‘Consciousness-Raising’ events. By making known the plight that women faced, more and more support could be secured and women would finally realise that they were not alone.

This publicity led to a great change in the involvement of women in America, and especially in the American politics of the time; women finally found their voice. On 15 January 1968, a group of women, known as the Jeanette Rankin Brigade after the first woman in Congress, confronted Congress to show a ‘strong…female opposition to the Vietnam War’ (internet: Firestone, 27th November 2001). In Shulamith Firestone’s opinion it was ‘naïve to believe that women who are not politically seen, heard, or represented…could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of Congressmen’ (internet: Firestone, 27th November 2001). Instead, the march was used to protest against the treatment of women and the stereotypes that existed in society. During this event, known as ‘the Burial of Traditional Womanhood’, women vowed to sacrifice their ‘traditional female roles’ and desist from ‘bolstering the egos of war makers and aiding the cause of war’ [1] .Women's groups joined the ranks of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington D.C. during June 1968

Nine months after ‘the Burial of Traditional Womanhood’, another protest ensued. This time the ‘Radical women of New York’ invaded the Miss America Pageant, claiming that Miss America was a ‘military death mascot’ and a ‘cheerleader’ for U.S troops; ‘last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk…(the)…husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit’ (Buzzanco: 1999, p227-228). Whilst this was an attack on the Vietnam War, the protest also meant to open the eyes of women who took part in the pageant. As with the pornography industry, people believed that beauty pageants acted as a factor in the ‘exploitation, objectification and denigration of women’ (Kaplan: 1991, p322).



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[1] This was written by Shulamith Firestone on an invitation handed out to women inviting them to the Burial of Traditional Womanhood, and explaining what the event would entail. I could not find a copy so as to reference it, but had been given a copy in a previous module.
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