Nancy: Remembering the Ladies

memorial dayToday 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?

10 thoughts on “Nancy: Remembering the Ladies

  1. I remember being in 8th grade, studying the Civil War, and learning about how, when they went to bury the men on the battlefield, some of those “men” were women. Dressed as men. Fighting alongside their husband, brother, or father. At the time, it shocked me that women would do that, but now I wonder why not? In many ways, women can be much tougher than men. After all, we’ve been birthing babies (mostly without anesthetic) since the dawn of time. If that isn’t a trial of stamina and perseverance, I’m not sure what is.

    I recently read a book by one of my fellow Desert Rosers (and 2016 RITA nominee) Leslie Jones called “Night Hush.” It’s a great story about a woman who serves in the military (spying), who is actually really skilled and talented (and determined!), and who doesn’t put her job in the hopper when she meets the man of her dreams. In fact, she’s ready to put the man in the hopper!

    Hopefully we see more books like that, and more situations in the real world just like it.

    • I get lots of feeds about books in different genres, and recently I’ve noticed more stories where the warrior/soldier is the female in m/f romances. I don’t know whether this is a new trend or if it’s been around for a while and I just missed it, but I think it’s fertile ground for romances.

      • Suzanne Brockmann had a couple of romances quite a few years ago that I can think of where one woman was a helicopter pilot and another was a communications expert. I’m not an auto-buy on military romance, but it’s great to see fictional women fulfilling positions in the military, if for no other reason than they’re reminders to young women that they have wide-open career options.

  2. My dad served in Vietnam, and he once told me he opposed women in the military because he thought they could be a lot more vicious than any man. I think perhaps he was also saying they’d be more likely to break military discipline in order to, well, take care of business.

    I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but I do know that my favorite fictional warrior women are all quite subversive. Cordelia Vorkosigan defies her husband (the leader of a faction of Barrayar’s then-Civil War) in order to rescue her infant son from the other side. She is absolutely ruthless in her goal, but we sympathize with her because we know exactly why she is doing it. It’s a meta sort of thing in the future books of the series about how other Barrayarans (and people from her own planet, Beta) view her after her bloody history. A lot of times, it gets buried. Sometimes, people try to bury her, and then they are suddenly reminded that she’s had two men killed who threatened her (and her loved ones). They treat her with kid gloves after that.

    • I wouldn’t agree with your dad that women are ‘more vicious’. Off the battlefield, the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men (whether they are against women or other men). There may be some level of interpretation, as there is in other areas of life, where women’s presence is seen as ‘more than’, usually with a negative connotation, frex, when shown video of men and women talking, once women carry more than something like 20%* of the conversation, men will describe them as dominating the conversation. If a woman exudes strength and valor and, yes, violence on the battlefield similar to the male soldiers around her, does it get perceived as more violent? Interesting questions…

      *I am too lazy to look up the studies/actual percentages right now, but it’s significantly below 50%.

      • Yes, I’m not sure I agree with him either, over the course of averages. I could point out some very vicious women, but I could also point out some very vicious men, too. I don’t think vicious people of any sex are good for a military unit’s morale or survival chances.

        One interesting thing: women who participated in the military in the past were highly motivated, and I don’t think there’s ever been a mandatory military service for women in the U.S. (I think there may be mandatory government service for everyone in a few countries, but that’s not restricted to the military, IIRC). That makes a difference. I think we’d see things much differently as a nation if there had been a mandatory draft of able-bodied women as well as men.

        (-: Not going to speculate how much differently — there could be a million different timelines stemming from an alternate history change like a draft for everyone in 1968.

      • Men do seem to commit more violent crimes, but I think I know what Michaeline’s dad means. I think in general situations, women are more practical, and men are more “romantic” in the sense that it’s more difficult for them sometimes to make hard personal choices. Women are more likely to cut to the chase. As in:
        Mom: How can we afford groceries this week?
        Dad: We’ll find a way.
        Mom: Jimmy’s visit to the dentist has to wait.

  3. Wow, fun topic. I have always been interested in and studied about Joan of Arc and Amelia Earhart – two fascinating women. I have also heard, reports from male military spec ops types that they really dislike women terrorists – you don’t get many- like serial killers, and other very violent offenders – but when you do they are always labeled as far more dangerous, unpredictable, and blood-thirsty. I came across an interesting series (only five episodes on “Warrior Women” hosted by Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) – I just found it was on Netflix currently and watched all of the episodes a couple of weeks a go (they are about an hr long ea)… My fav was probably Lozen – Apache medicine & warrior woman.

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