On Day 2 of The Artemis Women in Action Film Festival at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills I was reminded of – scratch that – educated about the history of women in the military. The first documentary I saw was a feature called Women Warriors: A Vision of Valor. This film takes us back to the beginning of the United States, to a time when you wouldn’t normally think of women serving in the military. Well that’s because they weren’t officially allowed in the military. But from day one, women have served in one way or another. From nurses, to secretly joining as men, women worked their way into the fight to make a difference. What I realized, and I’m sure it’s why the filmmakers made these films, we aren’t always taught women’s history.
A Vision of Valor taught me a lot about the policies of the military and the law and how it’s changed over the years. And many of the changes that are getting us to gender equality in the military have only happened in the latter part of my own life. Hearing personal stories from 10 women who served all the way back to WWII was pretty eye opening. They spoke about how they became involved, what they experienced, what they gained, and what they lost. The women touched on subjects such as gender equality, skills, jobs, sexual assault and rape, women in combat, and what war looks like from their perspectives.
The most memorable moment for me was when the nurse who served in Vietnam reflected on witnessing young soldiers being blown apart. She said that if we had been in her shoes we would never be okay with going to war again. I also enjoyed hearing from a woman serving more recently in Iraq who spoke about her role in the fight. While she’s not technically allowed to fight on the front lines, she is there doing just that. Semantics aren’t stopping our service women from doing their jobs and making a difference so why should the law prevent them from enjoying all of the benefits that men in similar positions reap?
The second film in the screening block was Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story, a short documentary about Vi Cowden, a woman air force service pilot (W.A.S.P.) who served during WWII. W.A.S.P.s were the first women in history to fly America’s military aircraft. I loved hearing Vi’s story about growing up determined to learn how to fly (like the hawks she saw in the sky). She saved up her money and took flying lessons at a nearby airport around her busy schedule teaching at a local schoolhouse.
Vi completed her private pilot license and when the US entered WWII in 1942, she learned that the Air Force was recruiting women pilots. They needed to relieve the men working in the states so they could go overseas and fight. She was one of about 1,100 women accepted into the service. For over 2 years Vi and the other women of W.A.S.P. flew to transport officers to different locations around the country, served as target practice for men training for combat (they flew with targets flying behind their planes – yes this was very dangerous!), ferried planes to their destinations, and tested new planes as they came out of the factories.
While Vi’s story is incredible and uplifting it also takes a discouraging turn. In 1944, even while General Arnold was petitioning Congress to formally recognize these women as a part of the military, the Army Air Force (which is what it was called then) suddenly thanked and discharged all of the women with no benefits and not even a ticket back home. They received no recognition or benefits for their service. Even 38 of the women who served in W.A.S.P. lost their lives during service. The military didn’t even pay to have their bodies sent home. The other female pilots would put out collection baskets to raise enough money to ship them back.
It wasn’t until 1977 (over 30 years later!) when President Carter signed the G.I. Improvement Act recognizing that W.A.S.P.s had served on “active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration.” Finally, it was the recognition they fought for and dreamed of – and certainly deserved.
But the fight isn’t over yet. To this day, they and many Americans are fighting to extend all of the benefits given to men who served to these women. This includes their bodies and ashes being welcomed into Arlington Cemetery. Currently service women are not allowed there. Click here to learn more about this issue and click here to sign the petition. We need 22K more signatures as of posting this article.
Tell me, did you know about these Warrior Women? I know I didn’t. I’m thrilled to have learned about them through The Artemis Women in Action Film Festival and these documentaries. Let’s all spread the word about women’s history. We make up more than half of the population so there is no reason not to take up half of the history books.
Check out the trailer for Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story