NEH Impact: Spotlighting Women in the Military

In 2016, the University of Maryland (UMD) and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to host a program entitled “100 Years of American Women in Uniform” for women veterans. “100 Years” is the first of NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War programs to focus specifically on women veterans. Thirty-eight women veterans from 10 states and Washington, D.C. participated in the program, which spanned four weekends. Participants engaged a wide variety of materials from a century of women’s military history--including diaries, documents, photos, scrapbooks, and artifacts from the Smithsonian collection. They enjoyed expert-led sessions, including several reflective writing exercises. And they learned how to contribute their own and other veterans’ stories to the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

“100 Years” commemorated World War I, when women were first formally incorporated into the American military. It also followed the Department of Defense’s decisions to open all military occupations to women and to implement gender-neutral qualification standards across all branches. The debates that led to these policy shifts increased the visibility of the women who served in combat zones dating back to the American Revolution, with more than 300,000 serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite these contributions and historic breakthroughs, women veterans largely feel invisible in American society. In a 2016 Service Women’s Action Network survey, 75% of women veteran respondents said that the general public did not recognize their service. There is also evidence that women veterans sometimes internalize this invisibility: many do not claim earned VA benefits or even identify as veterans. Programs like “100 Years” help deepen women veterans’ senses of identity and solidarity as well as achieve greater visibility. “Working with veterans has made me see how women’s military history is very much helpful for understanding who they are and forging a collective identity across decades and centuries,” says Project Director Marian Moser Jones. As one participant wrote, “I had no idea how long women had been serving in the U.S. or any idea of the magnitude of their contributions. This program made me feel like I am part of a legacy.”

The program also offered crucial opportunities to grapple with the many challenges women veterans continue to face, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which is particularly prevalent among women. Research indicates that 20-40% of women in the military experience military sexual trauma (MST), compared to about 1% of men. Women who suffer from MST are more than five times more likely to have PTSD and three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Women veterans are also much more likely to be unemployed, homeless, and to commit suicide than women outside the military.  

Programs like “100 Years” help address these issues by providing solidarity and support. Women exiting the military report significantly less social support during the reintegration process than men. A VA-funded study of women combat veterans found that the majority, assuming that friends and family would not understand, isolated themselves and withheld difficult experiences, oftentimes with disastrous consequences for their health. In interviews connected to this study, “several women spoke of the importance of coming together with other women veterans to share their experiences,” noted researchers, but “unfortunately, women could think of few opportunities.”   

“100 Years” Project Director Marian Moeser Jones of the UMD School of Public Health recalls how the weekend format, and the time it afforded participants to get to know one another, enabled participants to connect and share. And the rich humanities sources helped them delve deeper into the complexities of their experiences: “They started to see the value of text, both reading and producing text, as a way to get at aspects of their experience...they may not have been able to use either a therapeutic framework or a social science framework. People really opened up. It was very powerful.” In a post published on the VA blog, participant Jerri Bell described one such moment. “One Veteran brought many of the participants to tears when she shared a traumatic story from her time in the Army. She had told no one but immediate family for more than three decades. At the end of the day, she said, ‘This program has helped me process things I didn’t even know I needed to process.’”

The writing-heavy program also inspired several participants to pursue writing projects, ranging from memoirs to dissertations, on women’s military history. Others were inspired to share materials from the program through their local veterans’ organizations. And D.C. area participants decided to continue the conversation through a monthly book group. With alumnae in 10 states and D.C., these ripple effects are resonating on a national scale. “Perhaps one day soon,” says Jones, “women who have served in the military will feel as deserving of the title ‘veteran’ and as connected to the veteran community as anyone else.”

Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: Armed Forces History Curator and co-director Dr. Bart Hacker (left) and program manager Patri O’Gan (right) are explaining the objects on display, women’s World War 1 uniforms and other artifacts, as part of a behind-the-scenes tour for participants.