I recently visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, DC. Public spaces in a nation’s capital tell the “official” story of that country to the rest of the world, and the architects and planners of Washington, DC have been aware of that since L’Enfant first laid out the design for the capital of the new nation in 1791. I wondered: What story is being told in Washington about women and military service? Who’s telling that story? How would one of the harried Iowans getting off a tour bus at Arlington National Cemetery – where the Memorial is located – experience that story?
During a twenty-year career in the Navy, half of it spent in DC, I only went to the Memorial once. At my first stateside duty station, a colleague gave me a brochure requesting a donation and my registration at the recently-dedicated Memorial. I sent neither. I was paying off my ensignmobile and a student loan the size of an aircraft carrier. More importantly, back then we were working so hard to convince our male colleagues to treat us as equals that any kind of monument suggesting that women were special and different seemed like a giant step backwards. Tailhook was still an oozing wound in the Navy psyche, and women serving in the armed forces were still in the thick of the fight for equality. Shouldn’t the memorial be built after the war was over and won? Many years later, when another colleague I barely knew chose the Memorial for her retirement ceremony, I didn’t linger afterwards to look at the exhibits. Work was piling up back in the office, and my feet hurt from the long walk from the parking area to the Memorial in the low-heeled pumps that I almost never wore. I had to retire and give myself time for reflection before I could understand why the stories of women’s military service and how they were told mattered.
So on a cool, sunny March day, this time in civilian clothes and comfortable shoes, I found myself at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery looking down the long access road to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The structure looks like a cross-section of a Brunelleschi drawing – four Roman arches on either side of an apse topped with a half-dome, all in beautiful neoclassical proportions and glowing white granite – and the road leads straight toward it. The effect is somber and majestic; the design suggests that the structure commemorates something important with its origins in classical antiquity. But there is no statuary anywhere outside the structure, no placard or marquee informing the casual visitor of the Memorial’s existence. The doors aren’t visible from the road or even the empty hemispherical plaza in front of the Memorial – it isn’t apparent that there’s anything at all behind the granite façade. There isn’t even an American flag, that symbol of the Constitution we all swore to protect and defend: most veterans consider a flag de rigeur for any military post or museum. The visitor’s eye is drawn immediately to Arlington House, on the hill above and behind the Memorial, where hordes of schoolchildren swarm around a huge flagpole waiting for their tour group to be called. The Memorial could easily be mistaken for an attractive but unimportant part of a ceremonial entry gate to Arlington. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Oscar?
I went into two arches before I found the glass door into the Memorial. It’s so dark in the gallery that the gold lettering on the glass door hardly showed up. Inside, a long granite-topped counter that might have been a welcome desk was unmanned. A few brochures – one requesting registration and donation, the others unrelated to the Memorial – were strewn haphazardly next to a large foil warming pan of food probably intended for the reception after a retirement or promotion ceremony. A tiny, dark gift shop was tucked into a corner: a woman at the register was busy folding t-shirts.
Nothing marked the entrance to the Education Center – the museum-like section of the Memorial, but I found my way in and stopped in front of a plaque in the first niche that read:
This Memorial honors the women
who have served
in and with the US Armed Forces
from the time of the American Revolution
to the present.
Although women did not officially serve in the military
until the 20th century,
many women served with the military
in earlier times of crisis.
The Education Center within this Memorial
tells the stories of these forerunners
and then focuses on women
of the 20th century
who have served both in and with the military
in ever-expanding roles.
A series of niches with static displays arranged in rough chronological order punctuated the right-hand (exterior) wall of the sterile, modern, semicircular hallway. Pre-20th century displays seemed to focus on individual women, 20th and 21st century displays on small groups. Two video screens offered film clips for visitors who didn’t mind sitting on backless wooden benches with their backs completely exposed to passers-by: none of the women veterans I know who have PTSD would be able to sit on those benches long enough to see the opening credits. Pre-20th century displays told the stories of an individual woman veteran; there was little context or explanation of how that woman’s story was chosen and in what way her story was representative of women’s military service in that era. Nor did I see anything that connected the niches, either thematically or in a narrative arc, except that each featured…women. A guest book in the last niche was surrounded by memorial wreaths set about haphazardly; not until I left did I realize that they had probably been temporarily removed from the Hall of Valor, opposite, where a ceremony was just letting out. Not wanting to disturb the participants, I didn’t even peek into that space.
On the left-hand (interior) wall there were a few more exhibits about individual women: a Navy pilot killed in training; a woman who served in a Navy hospital in during the conflict in Korea, who kept detailed diaries of her experiences. An opening led into a hallway with rest rooms and a conference room that appeared to contain an irritated male Navy captain in service dress blues cleaning up from or setting out presentation materials. Another opening, close to the entrance, contained the “heart” of the memorial: computers where servicewomen or their family members can register, or look up women who are already registered. This hall was staffed with a couple of lovely older ladies, one with a heavy German accent (perhaps a war bride?) who pressed me to register. Two quilts hung there as well: one made on USNS Comfort, and another commemorating women killed in OEF/OIF. One of the docents reverently pointed out retired Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, president of the Memorial Foundation and the driving force behind construction of the Memorial, who was deep in conversation with two other women about her age. Even in civilian clothes, she was unmistakably still a senior officer.
The final section of wall on the interior side of the Education Center exhibit space was taken up by a photo exhibit with pictures of contemporary women in uniform. Little placards offered a brief description of each woman’s service and a quote from her. I didn’t have much time to spend there, and got no feel for how the photos were chosen or arranged – they seemed random.
My final stop was the dark little gift shop. The large shelf in the center was crammed with sweatshirts, t-shirts, and cheap knickknacks that could be found in any DC gift shop: few, if any, of them had anything to do with the Memorial. The bookshelves were stocked with a few hundred volumes about women in the American armed forces, and a few memoirs and biographies. Inexplicably, not one of the recent books by women veterans of OEF/OIF – most of which are currently in print – was for sale there. And I didn’t see a single book about the Memorial itself.
So I came away disheartened and disappointed. The story told about women in military service at the Memorial seems deliberately hidden from public view; the story reads (to me, and I was looking for story) as disjointed, out of context, and almost incoherent. The relationship of the Memorial’s architecture to women’s service is not explained; little context is offered for the exhibits; and there is almost no sense of the historical and ongoing debate about women’s service. Women seem to have been dropped into “ever expanding roles” in the armed forces: there’s no tribute to what women have had to do to gain acceptance and access to those roles, and to prove our worthiness to serve. The gift shop isn’t even carrying the books that would be the most interesting to many visitors – contemporary memoirs and fiction by women who served in OEF/OIF, books whose sales would benefit real, live women veterans.
But there’s more to the story of the Memorial. There are reasons for some of the things that left me unsatisfied when I visited. I’ve found some of the answers already, and I hope to visit again, learn more, and post what I find out. In the meantime, I’m filling out the registration brochure and writing a check for my donation. I may be underwhelmed about the way that the Memorial tells the story of American women’s military service, but I couldn’t agree more with the slogan on the brochure:
Every Servicewoman’s Story Is Important!
If you’re a woman veteran and you haven’t registered with the Memorial, please consider doing so. Donations are voluntary.