Unsung Heroes: Women in Military Service
with Phyllis Wilson of the Military Women’s Memorial
More than 3 million women have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the American Revolutionary War.
Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women’s Memorial, delves into the untold stories of these heroes and details the only major national memorial honoring all servicewomen — past, present and future.
November 10, 2020
Anderson: More than 3 million women have served in the US Armed Forces since the American Revolutionary War, but the stories of these heroic patriots often go untold. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. While history tells the stories of the service and the sacrifice of men, the contributions that women brought to our nation's defense often go unrecognized. And joining me to talk about all of that is Phyllis Wilson. She is the president of the Military Women's Memorial Foundation. And, Phyllis, thanks for being here.
Wilson: Thank you very much.
Anderson: So, let's start with a little bit of the backstory on all of this. We know that women have served in the military for a long time, but what we often don't know is their stories and their barriers to serving. What can you tell us?
Wilson: Well, as you said earlier, from the Revolutionary War till today, women have served and defended this country, and we weren't legally allowed to wear our uniforms, obviously, and serve in the military until the 1900s. But we have stories and records that prove women wore men's uniforms or men's attire all the way back to the Revolutionary War to fight and defend their own country. So, how do we tell this story is really the important piece and how things have changed and how we've affected society and how societal norms have migrated because of what women in the military have done.
Anderson: So you're now spearheading this ongoing movement to recognize these women the same as their male counterparts. How did all this start, and what are you doing when it comes to picking up the baton to make all this happen?
Wilson: Well, I'm honored to pick up the baton, actually. General Vaught -- brigadier general Air Force-retired Wilma Vaught still comes to the office now. She's our president emeritus, and she joined the Air Force in 1957 and retired in 1985 as a general, and one of the first women generals because we weren't allowed to be promoted to general until 1970. So she had pinned that star, and when she retired from the Air Force, she just knew in her heart that there needed to be a place that honored -- a physical location that honored what women had done in the military and continuing to this day. So she started it back in '85. We broke ground in 1995 and did the grand opening dedication ceremony in 1997. So just last week we celebrated our 23rd anniversary at the memorial.
Anderson: Wow, that's incredible. And when it comes to Brigadier General Vaught, I know that things changed in the military dramatically when she first came into the service. She was taught how to put on makeup as opposed to how to fire a gun. How did things change, and what was her impact by the time she left in 1985?
Wilson: Sure. She saw significant changes certainly when she joined not long after the Korean conflict. She served in Vietnam -- one of the few Air Force women that did so, and she does tell us a story about how they still wanted her to wear... It's so hot in Vietnam in a dress and stockings, and she tried to comply, but she's a bit of a firebrand, and she... Well, she never had weapons training. She found a way to have a gun in her dorm, if you will, where she was over in Vietnam to safeguard herself and others. And how she saw things change from... 1976 was the first year women were permitted to join service academies, nearly 20 years after she had joined the service. But she witnessed the first women graduating from the Air Force Academy and others all the way to -- I had joined just a couple of years before she retired. I wish I had known her when we were both wearing the uniform, but I know her now, and that's really a huge, huge thing to me in my life.
Anderson: The Women's Memorial is housed at Arlington. It's arguably one of the most well-known cemeteries in the nation, but the memorial itself, isn't that widely known. How challenging has it been for you to really beef up visibility?
Wilson: Sure. The Military Women's Memorial is at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, so we sit on hallowed ground. But so many people think -- when they hear a memorial, they think of just a wall or a... like the Washington Monument or something like that, and not that we actually have a 33,000-square-foot education center. That beautiful curved wall that is the front of the memorial, is also the front wall to the education center. We have a 200-seat theater. We have a very lengthy exhibit gallery that tells the story and chronological themes from the Revolutionary War till today. And those kind of pieces and how we then talk about the register, which is one of those things that we... We have 300,000 women that have sort of given us a very short bio, if you will, of what they did while they were in the service. That's 300,000 out of 3 million, so we've got a ways to go.
Anderson: Yeah, a ways to go. And I know that this is really personal for you. You served active duty 37 years, and one of the goals now is to register a 100,000 more women in a space of the year and gather their stories. How important is that to you, and what is it gonna mean for you to reach that goal?
Wilson: It's incredibly important, and I think that one of the big things that we'd really enjoy if you'd ever joined us at the foundation -- the headquarters where we keep a lot of the paper information -- is we have books and books and books -- 3-inch binders that are filled with the registration forms that were mailed in back in the day. Now it's all digital, but you can pull those open, and you see their photographs that they mailed to us, their handwritten stories of memorable experiences in the service, some that are incredibly harrowing and scary. Those women that served in combat zones and dealt with just incredible odds and came home. And then there are those that are just downright funny. But they all have that common thread and a bond that we all that have worn the uniform absolutely recognize, and that's what's exciting is that now we have this whole new generation, since 1990, since Desert Shield, Desert Storm, more women have served and are serving than in the entire rest of the time of this country. And these women, many don't even know about their own memorial. And we're trying to challenge them to step forward and take their rightful place in history.
Anderson: So, when people want to find out more about this wonderful memorial, where can they go online?
Wilson: The easiest place is simply womensmemorial.org. All one word -- womensmemorial.org.
Anderson: Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women's Memorial Foundation, thank you so much for being here.
Wilson: Thank you. It was my honor.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own city and across the country, be sure to go to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.