by Elayne Clift

Since the days of the goddess Athena, armed and shouting war cries, there have been female warriors. Still, war is viewed as a masculine domain.

Traditional images of women during wartime have focused on what author Frank Moore dubbed “Angels of Mercy,” like the nurses and caretakers in the U.S. Civil War.  “The story of war will never be fully or fairly written if the achievements of women in it are untold,” Moore said at a time when wives and mothers were sending their men to fight for the honor of the North or South.  

But there were women soldiers in the Civil War too.  In They Fought Like Demons, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook share stories of hundreds of women who assumed male aliases, wore men’s uniforms, and charged into battle as both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Among them were Mary Ann Pittman and Loretta Valesques, both of whom raised a company of soldiers and later became spies.

More than a hundred years later, Marge Piercy’s 1980s epic novel Gone to Soldiersoffered a compelling portrait of women’s experiences during WWII.  Writing about women who ferried airplanes for the Air Force, served as intelligence officers in Europe, worked in factories to produce war goods and more, she put a female face on the reality of war.  Later, when Vietnam nurses lobbied for recognition, a new realization of women’s contributions and trials on the front lines emerged.  

Many a wartime heroine has gone unnoticed or been forgotten. Claire Chevrillon was one of them. An English teacher in Paris in 1942, she served in the French Resistance for three years working in Air Operations and later in Code Service. In 1943 she was arrested and imprisoned.  “What I remember about arriving,” she recalled, “were the dark, subterranean, endless corridors through which I walked followed by a guard, as if in a nightmare.”  Chevrillon survived the war and wrote a 1985 memoir. “The instinct of one nation or race to dominate another doesn’t die,” she wrote in the preface. “It grows insidiously, feeding on private and public concern, until suddenly it’s too late to prevent disaster.”

Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary in China during the infamous 1937 “Rape of Nanking.”  Called the Goddess of Mercy for desperately trying to save as many girls and women as possible, she repeatedly faced down threats and bayonets to provide asylum for refugees at the college she headed.  A 1938 diary entry reveals her despair: “How long will this terrible situation last?  How can we bear it?” In the end, Vautrin could not bear it.  After helping women locate their husbands and sons at the end of the war and teaching destitute widows how to survive, she returned to the U.S. and committed suicide in 1941. 

A group of amazing women captured in the Pacific by the Japanese was comprised of ninety-nine Army and Navy nurses later known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor. The first unit of American women ever sent into the middle of battle, they became the only group of American women captured and imprisoned by an enemy. Before their incarceration, they had helped build and staff hospitals in the middle of a malaria-infested jungle, pioneering triage nursing. During three grueling years in an internment camp they ultimately survived by eating weeds cooked in cold cream.  

Among them were women like Commander Maude Davison and Eleanor Garen, whose diary entry on a particularly bad day was typical: “Dear Garen, This is to yourself. Remember, life is not a bed of roses.”  After the war when Davison was recommended for highest honors, she received the lesser Legion of Merit.  In her file a general had written, “the position of Chief Nurse, although very important, is not one of great responsibility within the meaning of the qualification of the Distinguished Service Medal.”

An estimated eight to twelve thousand women served in the Vietnam War.  Most of them were nurses and all of them had volunteered.  Like Davidson and her women, few were recognized as true veterans when they came home.  One of them was Lily Jean Adams. Just twenty-two years old when she worked as an intensive care nurse, she remembered what it was like comforting a dying soldier. “Sometimes they would say ‘don’t leave me!’ And I wouldn’t. I had an inner sense that this was just as important as taking care of the living.”  

War Journalism Now Includes Effects on Noncombatants

Women war journalists have been equally brave and important in war zones. War reporting was traditionally a male arena focused on tactical questions, political infighting, and policy disputes, but obscured the trauma experienced by women and other civilians who lived in attacked areas.  These noncombatants survive by fleeing to marginally safer ground or to the hell of refugee camps, where safety was not assured and where sexual assault was common.  

In recent conflicts, civilians have accounted for as many as 90 percent of all casualties.  The stories of their pain and displacement are most often shared by women reporters whose contributions have changed the fundamentals of war reporting. Today approximately a third of frontline journalists are female and they have a measurable influence on the content of war coverage.  They follow models like Margaret Fuller, who covered war for the New York Tribune in the 19th century, Anna Benjamin, the first female photojournalist who covered the Spanish-American War, Mary Boyle O’Reilly, who was at the front in the First World War, and Peggy Hull, who covered both World Wars and was the first female American war correspondent to be accredited.  

Today women make up approximately 16 percent of American military forces and about 6 percent of veterans.  Although women were not officially recognized as members of the Armed Forces until 1901, and then only as nurses, women have served in every major war in U.S. history.  In WWI women who weren’t nurses could finally join the military; over 30,000 of them enlisted.  During WWII women’s roles expanded and over 400 women of the 400,000 who served lost their lives.  Desert Storm marked the largest deployment of women to a combat theater in U.S. history until the second Iraq war, with more than 40,000 women serving.  In January of this year, the U.S. Military finally lifted the ban on women serving in combat.  

Today women are graduating in ever larger numbers from U.S. military academies, often at the top of their class.  Andrea Lee Hollen, the first woman to graduate from West Point in 1980, was among the top 50 cadets academically that year.  

It is sad, then, to note that sexual harassment and assault continues to plague women in the military.  Jenny McClendon’s story is typical.  A sonar operator, she experienced sexual harassment when she joined the Navy in 1997.  When an officer called her “a lesbian, a feminist, and a Democrat,” and said she should be thrown overboard, she reported him to a supervisor. He told her to get over it.  Then McClendon was raped by a superior while on watch aboard her ship, the first of two “military sexual trauma” attacks, or MST. When she reported it she was accused of lying and told to “shut up.”  Then she was removed from her ship, forced to attend anger management counseling, and diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.  

The kind of abuse Jenny McClendon describes is widely experienced but probably under-reported by female veterans.  Twenty percent of military women who’ve returned home have been identified by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs as having experience with MST and 80 percent have reported sexual harassment.  Experts say the VA numbers are probably too low.

Women like McClendon are not the only ones to feel invisible or ignored as they try to recover from the wounds of war.  Military wives also suffer, often silently. Natalie Baker’s story is typical.  Her husband, a “laid-back, funny, affectionate, down-to-earth guy” when they married twelve years ago, served in Iraq a year after they were married and had their first child.  By the time he came home he was a changed man.  At the VA hospital he was told he had “an adjustment disorder” and given a diagnosis of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and later PTSD.  Today he receives partial disability pay while Natalie tries to keep the family together, take care of her husband and two daughters, and get the benefits for which she is eligible so that they don’t lose their home.  

Natalie Baker is calm, competent and loving as she handles the myriad tasks that have fallen to her.  But the strains of the situation are evident.  “I sometimes feel resentful,” she says.  “This isn’t what I expected my life to be.”

Frank Moore was right. The story of war will never be fully written or understood if the achievements and contributions of women are unrecognized.  From soldiers to spies, nurses to Navy personnel, journalists to junior officers, veterans to wounded warrior wives, the stories of women in wartime must be told. The women at the center of those stories need to be honored, for they are women of courage, strength and resilience, not only now but as they have always been during wartime.

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.  A Vermont Humanities Scholar and adjunct lecturer in Gender Studies and English, her latest book is Hester’s Daughters, a contemporary, feminist retelling of The Scarlet Letter. (OGN Publ., 2012) (


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Translated by Jane K. Stott.  Texas A&M, 1995.

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