Today is Memorial Day in the US, a day set aside especially to commemorate soldiers who died in all the wars throughout America’s history. The image that often comes to mind on this day is that of the young men who lost their lives in combat. But not only men have died in our wars. In every conflict since the founding of our country, dating all the way back to the American Revolution, women have taken up arms in battle and many have lost their lives doing so.
I have always been fascinated by the stories of these women, from the mythological Molly Pitcher loading canons during the Battle of Monmouth to the historically documented instances of women posing as men to become soldiers in multiple conflicts to the plethora of information we have on women who stole behind enemy lines to scout and spy. From the handful of women known to have actively engaged in battle in the 1770’s to the 165,000 women enlisted in the American armed services today, women have risked their lives in battle, even when they were actively banned from combat positions, as war has a nasty tendency to ignore where battle lines are drawn and where the war-front actually begins and ends.
Despite what personal feelings we might have about war and its role in modern-day society (that is a very LONG discussion for another day), the destinies of nations have been forged in wars and history has been written by the victors. Unfortunately, far too often, women and their sacrifices have been written out of that history. The tendency to relegate women to supporting cast roles is so prevalent that historical romances, which many of us read and some of us write, are sometimes called out for writing women who are too modern, read: too strong, adventurous, or independent for their time. My answer to those naysayers is, ‘you don’t know the true stories about women in history’. Today I’d like to share a few reading suggestions to help find those true stories so we can do what Abigail Adams implored her husband to do at the First Continental Congress and ‘remember the ladies’.
If you’re interested in learning more about the lives of women during the American Revolution, you can read some of the letters our second First Lady exchanged with her husband in The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Remember while doing so that she had no formal education, par for the course for women of her time, and you will gain even more respect for her intellect and shrewd political mind. To learn more about Deborah Sampson who masqueraded as a man so she could take up arms, check out Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. by Alfred F. Young.
If, like me, you can’t resist a good, real-life spy story, you’ll want to read Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. To learn more about women on the front lines during that war, where women once again took up disguises as men, read Jess Righthand’s article The Women Who Fought in the Civil War.
Moving into the 20th century, Lettie Gavin’s They Also Served shares stories and photos of some of the 40,000 American women who served in relief and military efforts during World War I. For more about women in World War II, Eleanor Lang’s Her War captures the stories of women in through their own reminiscences.
Over the past 20 years, more women than ever have joined the US military. Anyone who has paid attention to the news know that during that time, we also learned about the abuse and humiliation that has possibly always been an undercurrent of the armed service. Some of these stories made it all the way to the floor of the US Senate, but sadly, not nearly enough has been done to appropriately protect and support all women and men in uniform. To see how the political is personal, read the intimate and in-depth experiences of three women who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq in Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls.
These are just a few titles to get you started. A brief search on Google or the search engine of your choice will provide you with rabbit holes galore that you can follow to learn more about courageous, extraordinary women of every era, from all over the world (well beyond America’s shores), during war and peacetime.
While we might not realize it, those of us writing in the romance and women’s fiction genres are doing our own small part to write women back into history. Our stories are fictional, but are often based on research, some of it quite extensive, about the lives and times of women in the eras in which our stories unfold. The next time you hear criticism about the female characters in these genres not representing the realities of the times, be sure to share some herstory with the critics, for they know not whereof they speak.
What great women in history, wartime or otherwise, inspire you?