Posts Tagged ‘women’

U.S. Women Got Purple Hearts in Vietnam

May 20, 2017


Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

Seen here are, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam. Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

On Christmas Eve, 1964, National Liberation Front guerrillas drove a car loaded with explosives into a parking lot behind the Brinks Hotel Bachelor Officers Quarters in central Saigon. The blast killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded more than sixty American military personnel and Vietnamese civilians. Among the wounded were four Navy nurses who were injured while caring for U.S. servicemen hurt in the attack. On January 9, 1965, the nurses received Purple Heart awards for their service. In the photo above are three of the nurses, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. (Lieutenant Frances L. Crumpton is not pictured.) The photo was taken at the awards ceremony at the U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam.

We know that male U.S. servicemen earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but female nurses don’t typically jump to the collective American mind when it envisions the combat moment in the Vietnam War. Was the story of the Brinks nurses forgotten simply because four women nurses comprised a small fraction of the overwhelmingly male American casualties in Vietnam? Even though the Brinks bombing was part of a broader NLF strategy of urban combat before the 1968 Tet Offensive, did the lieutenants’ status as nurses — traditional women’s roles in wartime — somehow make their wounds acceptable to an American public that likely would not have supported women serving in infantry units or being drafted? Has this story remained obscured because it challenges the notion that the combat moment is a distinctly male space? Why are Americans invested in a Vietnam War narrative in which the characters are almost entirely American men? As the story of the Brinks nurses illustrates, American women saw combat in Vietnam, even in the air-conditioned jungle in Saigon.



November 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about women and war lately — partly because I’m teaching a course on the subject in the spring, but also because these photos caught my eye as I searched online for pictures of women in Afghanistan:

Images of war-torn Afghanistan and stories about violence and discrimination against women make it difficult to believe that the Afghanistan in these photographs ever actually existed. Earlier this week, Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and a women’s rights activist, survived an assassination attempt after a suicide bomber detonated explosives near her vehicle. Barakzai, who has been an MP for 10 years, has repeatedly received death threats. She is an outspoken critic of the Taliban, and she once operated a secret girls school during the Taliban’s reign. The assassination attempt on Barakzai made international headlines because of her political status, but the threat of violence in various forms is part of Afghan women’s daily lives.

It may come as a surprise to some readers that throughout much of the 20th century, Afghan leaders enacted numerous laws advancing women’s freedom. In 1919, Amir Amanullah Khan authorized women’s suffrage — a year before American women received the right to vote — and abolished dress codes for women as part of his national modernization program. His wife, Queen Soraya, opened a girls’ school in Kabul in 1921 and appeared unveiled in public. Subsequent Afghan leaders continued promoting the education of women and girls, raised the legal age of marriage, and abolished polygamy and state-enforced veiling. Progressive legislation regarding women’s rights was not without its critics, who tended to be in the more conservative, tradition-bound rural areas. Certain rulings, such as the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s banning of the burqa in 1978, fueled armed revolts in the countryside. Political unrest culminated in war with the Soviet Union, which lasted for nearly a decade and was followed by a civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996.

The Taliban reversed progressive gender legislation and forbade women from working outside the home, going out in public without a male relative, going to school after the age of eight, and being treated by a male doctor. Taliban law also required women to be fully covered in public, allowed child marriage, and authorized corporal punishment such as whipping and stoning to be used against women. Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International UK, believes that 35 years of militarization and war is to blame for the status of women in Afghanistan today. She remembers her mother in miniskirts and her aunt as a college student in the 1970s, but, she says in an interview with Amnesty UK, the Soviet war along with U.S. and CIA support of the mujahideen, created the conditions that allowed the Taliban to seize power. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, stories about Afghan women’s lives have been part of the broader narrative about U.S. and NATO efforts to modernize Afghanistan.

Yet linking the modernization of Afghan women’s lives to Western intervention misses much of 20th century Afghan history. In 2013, the New York Times asked Afghans, via Facebook, to offer their thoughts about Western involvement in Afghanistan over the past decade, and several respondents pointed out that Afghan leaders had written women’s civil rights into law in the early 1920s, in the 1964 Constitution, and in the 1977 Civil Code. The concept of Afghan women’s rights is not a “Western” thing. Before war began tearing Afghanistan apart in the 1980s, Afghan women earned university degrees, had careers, and enjoyed personal freedoms. Class determined which Afghan women had access to certain opportunities, and urban elite women were the primary beneficiaries of Afghan modernization efforts, but the potential for the expansion of women’s rights was there. The sharp contrasts in images of Afghan women then and now show just how drastically war has transformed Afghan women’s lives. Twentieth-century Afghan history reveals that the conflict over women’s rights specifically and modernization more generally is not one that necessarily pits Afghanistan against the West but rather pits conservative Afghan elements against Afghans with a progressive vision for the future and, in some cases, a memory of Afghanistan’s modern past.

Further reading:

Remembering Afghanistan’s Golden Age. New York Times:

Afghans Share Their Views on the West’s Influence. New York Times:

Timeline of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. PBS:

Women in Afghanistan: The Backstory. Amnesty International UK:

Scott Levi, The Long, Long Struggle for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective:

Female Afghan MP survives suicide attack. Al Jazeera English:

Maryam Zar, For women and girls in Afghanistan, not silence:—for-women-and_b_6187788.html

Afghanistan’s untold story: Stability, tourists, miniskirts. CNN:

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