Elayne Clift


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Rosie the Riveter Revisited

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

Remember Rosie, the symbol of women’s role in the factories of World War II? Well, she’s back. But this time she’s on the battlefield and in the bunkers.  She’s taking her place alongside the burly GI’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she’s practically invisible.

She is women like Emily Perez, a 23-year old West Point graduate who was killed recently when a convoy she was leading was blown to bits near Najaf.  She is medical officer and National Guardswoman Megan O’Connell who spent over a year in Ramadi.  She is Tammy Spicer, a captain with the Missouri National Guard who drove a big truck and commanded an entire transportation operation somewhere else in Iraq, having also served in Kuwait.

The interesting thing about women’s role in the military during current operations, in addition to the fact that it is hardly talked about, is that it harkens back to how the rules got changed in Rosie’s day.  Back then, women were supposed to be happy homemakers who were there to support their men.  But when those men went marching off to war and those same women were needed in America’s factories, the propaganda changed. Suddenly Uncle Sam was talking to women too when he said “we need YOU!”
After the war when Johnny came marching home again, of course, women were once again shunted off to solitary confinement in their new suburban homes, admonished to be happy with their shiny new Mix-masters and Hoovers.

It remains to be seen what mixed messages today’s military women will receive if and when they ever get to hang up their rifles and keys to the jeep.  But isn’t it interesting how things have changed since the days of vociferous arguments against women in combat?  How vigorously some argued against it, or women in the military at all!  Why, they would distract if not outright seduce the men, create havoc when they were PMS-ing, be unable to carry their fair share of the load.  And it would be heinous to see women’s bodies coming back in body bags.  Well, so far, 65 women have come home that way, and no one is saying a word.

Could it be that we just couldn’t get the job done without women?  After all, the number of troops deployed is hardly sufficient to get the job done, and already 2,700 men have also been shipped home in those black bags. (And there are all those soldiers, men and women, who have come home horribly wounded.) As writer Lizette Alvarez put it in a recent New York Times article (9/24/06), “circumstances have outpaced arguments.”  

There are still things women in the military aren’t allowed to do.  Technically at least, they can’t serve as ground combat forces.  They can’t “co-locate,” i.e., support troops at the front line.  So, officially, for example, female medics can’t get upfront and personal, although the rules have been bent repeatedly because there just aren’t enough male troops to go around.  Some returning soldiers have said that the Pentagon is openly ignoring its own rules and putting women out in front because they are so badly needed.

I suppose when it’s all over, and God willing it will be soon, policymakers and pundits will once again debate the idea of women serving in the military equally with men.  In the meantime, they’re out there, facing not only the challenges of war, but from some reports, continuing harassment and sexual assault as well.  They’re coming home with lost limbs and post-traumatic stress syndrome just like the guys.  I hope when they do get back, they receive the respect and admiration they deserve.