Thursday, November 01, 2007

Gender Issues and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial

BY: Caitlin Jennings

This Veteran’s Day marks the 14th anniversary of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. I always felt the statue, representing three women near a fallen soldier, worked harmoniously with the rest of the memorial. Unlike some critics, I see it as a safe haven, set aside, quietly complimenting the wall and encouraging additional contemplation. As Cindy Gurney, Executive Director of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation put it, “it provides balance…it completes the memorial; it completes the wall.” In recalling the first time she saw the addition of the women’s memorial, she said, “I though it was wonderful the way those three pieces came together…the men who survived, the women who survived, and those who died.”
Diane Carlson Evans, Founder and President of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, first had the idea for the memorial in 1983 after seeing an image of the proposed addition to the wall—a statue of three soldiers designed by Frederick Hart. In a case study entitled Why was the Vietnam Women’s Memorial added to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial? she recalled that the image raised “painful personal awareness that our country did not and might not ever know the women who served alongside those depicted.” She also noted, “Historically, women who have served humanity during America's struggles and wars are not included in the artistic portrayals. They slip into history unrecognized and forgotten; compounding the myth that either they did not serve or their service was not noteworthy.”
Cindy explained that many women felt the wall, by itself, was inclusive. The eight women who died are listed with the men. However, when the controversial statue of the three soldiers was added “then you’ve got a monument to the men who served. Then there are 10-11,000 women who say ‘but what about me, that doesn’t include me.’”
While many veterans and other related groups supported Diane’s effort to rectify the exclusionary nature of the memorial by adding a statue depicting women, others fought the idea. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think people of such great numbers would be so against honoring the women of Vietnam,” Diane told me in a recent interview. “This was definitely a gender issue.” Diane believed opponents were uneasy with the idea of a figure depicting women. She noted in the case study, “Many people were comfortable with the popular stereotype of the all-male American military. For adversaries we were providing a new emblematic definition of women they were eager to impugn.”
Diane felt much of the gender related opposition was due to false stereotypes about the role women served during the war. Therefore, the success of the memorial hinged on “our ability…to educate the nation about who these women really were, what their contributions were, and getting those stories out there so people could make decisions for themselves on the merits for the memorial and not listen to those who were trying to impede the whole idea because of their misgivings or their misogyny.”
Fewer women served in the military than men. Therefore, one of the main arguments against the memorial concerned numbers; only 11,000 women served in Vietnam and only eight gave their lives. Was their contribution enough to merit a memorial? Diane said she replied to that argument by saying, “This memorial is not about the numbers…but if you want to go into numbers…lets talk about the fact that these women helped to save the lives of 350,000 men and women.”
The stereotype that women in Vietnam only served as nurses also hurt the cause. Cindy remembered there was a misconception, even among women, that the memorial would only represent nurses. In fact it represents all American women, both civilian and military, who served in Vietnam including air traffic controllers, USO volunteers, and journalists. It also represents the over 250,000 women who aided the effort at bases around the world. These women suffered from war related injuries and post traumatic stress disorder just like their male counterparts.
While the ability to persevere was needed for both their service and to push forward with plans for a memorial to honor that service, some people negatively viewed the female veterans’ determination. George F. Will said in an August 26, 1991 Newsweek article that the Mall should not become a monument to “irritable factions.” He also sarcastically noted that women were trying to “enrich” the memorial. On November 11, 1987 in the Washington Times, J. Carter Brown, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, said that any statue of women would “detract from the enormous power of the memorial.”
“What Brown neglects to specify, however, is precisely how much the [women’s memorial] might dilute the power of the Wall as compared to how much the existing statue on the site—Three Fighting Men—already compromises the Wall's inclusive embrace by its omission of women,” responded K.A. Marling and J. Wetenhall in The Sexual Politics of Memory: The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project and “The Wall.”
The gender issue also affected the ability to raise money and quickly garner support from powerful people. They lacked the resources the men had when proposing the addition of the three soldiers. As Cindy noted, in addition to the fact that the majority of veterans were males, these veterans also “went into fortune 500 companies or they became successful lawyers or politicians…and they were able to put together a lot of money and they deal[t] with money at very high levels. [Women] did not rise to those levels in the corporations.”
When reflecting on the long and arduous process, Diane said it “seemed like it took forever, especially because I kept comparing what we were doing to what the male veterans had done.” While the Hart statue met similar opposition concerning its possible negative effect on the impact of the wall, it was erected about three years after the idea was proposed and did not require separate legislation. In contrast, the proposal for the women’s memorial took ten years and required two pieces of additional legislation. Diane believes that if not for the gender issues “we would have had our memorial up within two or three years. But why did we have to go to congress and go through all these hoops…that the three servicemen statue didn’t have to go through?”
“The opposition tried to beat us down and throw obstacles in our way and they did it through a variety of methods and activities, some very public some very behind the scenes, but we just really felt that we were doing the right thing.” Diane’s voice resounded with determination when she added, “The reason that we have the memorial…is because we would not give up.”

“Let's all resolve that this memorial serve as a vehicle for healing our nation's wounds. Let's never again take so long in honoring a debt,” Al Gore said during the Dedication Ceremony on November 11, 1993. Today the monument and foundation serve an ongoing purpose. Cindy hopes that “some of our experiences…can also be helpful to the new generation of women who are serving.” Diane is currently serving on the advisory board for the National Vietnam War Museum. When discussing the project she assured me, “Women will be included.”


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