Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women's History Month March '11

I already posted this on Facebook, but I was invited to speak at a women's history month event along with three other women today.  One of them gave a great speech using the idea of foundation and building a sky scraper as a metaphor, listing various women's contributions as bricks.  It was very well done, and she added a nice personal touch by incorporating her mother and daughter as bricks, thus making her one of the three generations of women serving in the military.  The following is the speech I gave (I took out my unit info since I don't want people to find my blog while searching for my unit):

I am incredibly honored to be here today for Women's History Month.  I never would have expected to have this type of opportunity this early in my career.  This year's theme for women's history month is "Our History is Our Strength."  As a history, and gender and women's studies major, I have always believed that history and context are very important so I relish this opportunity to discuss some of that context, and the long history of women in combat.

Right now, women make up about 14 percent of the Active Duty Army.  Almost 11 percent of senior NCOs and nearly 14 percent of field grades and above are women.  In 2008 GEN Anne Dunwoody became the first female four star general.  SGT Leigh Ann Hester and SGT Monica Brown were the first two women to receive Silver Stars since World War II while serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, respectively. 

While women's official integration into the United States Army is rather recent, it is not hard to find women warriors throughout history.  Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca all rallied and led their people against the Roman Empire; Joan of Arc led the French during the Hundred Years War, and these are only a few names that have made their mark on history.  Boudicca, for example, was forgotten until Roman history texts were rediscovered in the Renaissance Era.  It is impossible to say how many other women have been lost to time.  Women's current service in the military is a continuation of this woman warrior spirit.

Within the United States, women were there from the beginning – during the Revolution, women acted as nurses, seamstresses and cooks, roles that would much later fall under the Army's sustainment branches.  Some helped their husbands at war, and in the well-documented cases of Margaret Corbin and Mary McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher, even took their husbands' places at the canons.  Women's roles during the Civil War were similar, and many women made a name for themselves due to their selfless service in the medical field.  Women enlisted disguised as men in both wars, though this habit would end with the implementation of physical exams.  In World War I, over 21,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps.  An additional 230 women served in the Signal Corps though it would not be until 1979 that their military status was recognized.  Additionally, women served as civilian cooks, clerks, seamstresses, and phone operators.  In some cases, this simply meant women continued to serve in traditional women's roles; in others, this was also a revolution as formerly male gendered occupations, such as clerks and typists, came to be associated with women.

However, it would be World War II that saw the creation of the Women's Army Corps, originally the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, creating a space for women in the Army.  The women served in many of the roles they had filled during previous wars but now they were actually part of the military and had a larger variety of options within the support areas.  In 1948, President Truman signed legislation that made the WAC a permanent part of the Army.  In 1978, the WAC was dissolved: with women's assimilation into male units and training, it had served its role.

That is some of the context and the history but what does that really mean?  Well, let's take me for example.  I'm a company commander in the ___ Brigade Support Battalion, ___ Infantry Brigade Combat Team.  I signed my ROTC contract at 18, and graduated from the University of Illinois in May 2006, receiving my commission through the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps.  It is only since 1976 that women have had the same minimum enlistment age as men – 18 without parental consent, 17 with.  The first woman graduated through ROTC in May 1976.  I attended the same Basic Officer Leader Course and Transportation Basic Leadership Course as my male counterparts.  It wasn't till 1977 that combined basic training for men and women became policy.  My first duty station was a three year overseas assignment at Grafenwoehr, Germany where I was a Transportation Platoon Leader.  It was in 1976 that single women's overseas assignments were changed from 24 to 36 months to equal their male counterparts.  I receive the same pay benefits as any other man who has completed the same schools and assignments as me on a similar time line.  I have government life insurance.  During World War II, the WACs had the same basic pay as male Soldiers but didn't receive overseas pay or the option for government life insurance.  If I got pregnant today, there would be no question about my ability to stay in and do my duty.  It wasn't until 1975 that the military eliminated involuntary discharge of women because of pregnancy and parenthood.  There is a chance that if I do well and stay in long enough, I could be promoted to general officer.  It was President Lyndon B. Johnson that removed promotion restrictions on women officers in 1967, making them eligible for general officer rank.  Without the women before me, my Army career thus far would look very different.

It is only when looking at where we were that we can truly understand how remarkable the changes have been.  The women that came before us faced great challenges, and their struggles and professionalism paved the way for us.  I'm sure many of them could never have predicted their impact or expected to change the status quo.  We, too, can pave the way ahead and open doors for the future women Soldiers by always striving for betterment, going above and beyond, and exceeding expectations.   There are still many mile stones left, but this is the month to celebrate the road so far, and draw inspiration from it.  These past ten years have showcased many women's achievements and opened doors, and as excited as I am about this, I look forward to a future where we no longer talk about "firsts" because these achievements have become the norm.

1 comment:

denesteak said...

This is great! The last part reminds me of Joss Whedon's "Why do you write such strong female characters?" speech.