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Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military

The following is the second post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.

(Note: Due to the closure of all DC-area Federal Government buildings on March 2, 2018, the Women’s History Month book talk  featuring Liza Mundy  has been canceled. Stay tuned for updates.)

Group of Army nurses, Camp McCoy, Wisconsin [October 1944]. Dorothy Margaret Cook Jenkins Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/5724.

Since the first battle was fought, they’ve been there. Women in the military have emerged from only being allowed to work as spies or in traditional support capacities, such as cooks and nurses, to becoming pilots, drivers and mechanics, to now fighting alongside their male counterparts in combat.

Sign to be hung in a window of a WAVE family home. Gladys Marsheck Echols Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/26792.

Some were the first young woman in their family to ever leave the safety and comfort of home, and set out for the unknown adventures—not to mention dangers—of life in the military. Along with their new uniforms, short haircuts and way of life, came new cohorts with whom they could share both humorous and challenging experiences. Many survived sexual trauma and harassment from the very men assigned to be their leaders. Too many times, these crimes and mistreatment went unreported for fear of retaliation. Nonetheless, women in the military have always found a way to persevere against all odds. They continue to make major contributions in service to our nation, and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Martha Putney in uniform. Martha Settle Putney Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/12523.

Martha Putney refused to let others’ suppositions about her worth as a woman, or as an African-American service member, discourage her from doing anything she wanted. She had already earned her Master’s degree from Howard University by the time she entered a segregated Women’s Army Corps during World War II.  Even though she was an officer, she still faced disrespect and harassment from white colleagues as well as civilians.

During her VHP interview, recorded when she was nearly 90 years old, Putney shares an encounter she had with a white, racist bunkmate who treated her with disdain, calling her “the n-word” multiple times. The woman eventually was forced to make an apology, although Putney was incredulous at its phrasing.

I didn’t know they let you kids in here with us…If my mother knew I was sleeping with you people, she’d want me to come home.

Putney quickly retorted at a volume only her nemesis could hear, “I suggest that you do what your mother would want you to do to feel comfortable.” Not surprisingly, life in the barracks soon took a slight turn for the better. After war’s end, Putney used the G.I. Bill to earn her Ph.D., and went on to live an even more successful life.

That is resilience.

Purple Heart recipient Rose Marie Noël learning to box. Rose Marie Grosshans Noël Collection, AFC/2001/001/79877.

When you think of Purple Heart recipients, you likely visualize male veterans, possibly with visible scars or missing limbs. I’d like to offer this image as one you can add to your mind’s eye.

As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Rose Marie Grosshans Noël made history by becoming the first female Gunnery Sergeant to be awarded the Purple Heart. In 2005, while serving in Iraq, an indirect fired rocket impacted about 100 meters from where she was riding a bike. Noël was left with shrapnel in her cheek, landing only millimeters away from a main artery in her face, and a traumatic brain injury. She would later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

You might assume that those injuries were enough to cause Noël to end her military career right away. You would be wrong. Even with a broken jaw, a determined Noël rejoined her fellow Marines and finished the last five months of her tour of duty. In her VHP interview, she states matter-of-factly:

Rosie would have loved to have gone home, but Rosie wasn’t in Iraq. Gunny Noël was.

Rose Marie Noël holding the shrapnel that was removed from her face. Rose Marie Grosshans Noël Collection, AFC/2001/001/79877.

That is strength.

That is why we salute these women this month, and always.

“People Who Stood Up”: Mississippi Women in the Civil Rights Movement

This guest blog post comes to us courtesy of Catherine Turner, a high school senior working at the American Folklife Center this Spring on her service project for Park School in Baltimore, MD. Catherine is entering Brown University in Fall 2017, and has spent the last six weeks diving into the collections at the Library […]

Cutting the Tension – VHP Narrators’ Cracks, Jokes and Quips

The following is a guest blog post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). Among VHP’s oral histories, memoirs and correspondence, we frequently find humorous anecdotes about jokes, pranks and creative punishments. This post began as an “April Fools” ruse developed from some of the more absurd scenarios recounted by veterans […]

Bringing the Church into the World: The Civil Rights Struggle & the Student Interracial Ministry

(This guest blog is provided courtesy of our old friend, David Cline, assistant professor of history and director of the graduate certificate in public history at Virginia Tech. Many Library patrons will be familiar with David, through the dozens of video interviews he has conducted for the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) and also because […]

Dr. King Remembered

In remembrance of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Library of Congress and other federal agencies, will be closed on Monday, January 16th (to be faithful to the facts, the Reverend’s actual birthday is January 15, 1929). To commemorate the occasion, this blog draws from the American Folklife Center’s documentary collections to present selected […]

The Inspiring Life of Texan Héctor P. García

The following is a guest post by Christy Chason, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). Until recently, Dr. Héctor P. García was someone about whom I knew precious little. In fact, knowing what I know now, I am embarrassed to say that I had only ever heard his name in the context of […]

Consider Making Monday a Day On, Not a Day Off

Every year, on the third Monday of January, America pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His widow, Coretta Scott King, along with many civil rights leaders, public figures and everyday people campaigned against the odds—and many resistant politicians—to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. I […]

Lead Belly, Alan Lomax and the Relevance of a Renewed Interest in American Vernacular Music

The following is a guest blog post by Dom Flemons, a musician and singer who currently tours and records as “The American Songster.”  Dom was one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom he has played at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, and with whom he won a GRAMMY Award.  Dom […]

Marching In Montgomery, 1965, Reconsidered

Montgomery in March, 1965, Reconsidered:
The Perspective from the Other Side of the Lens

Marchers with "One Man, One Vote" signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

Marchers with “One Man, One Vote” signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

This week’s blog is a companion piece to my previous post on the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Campaign in Alabama. Both blogs have provided a great opportunity for the AFC to share examples of Glen Pearcy’s singular photo documentation from the front lines of the freedom struggle in Montgomery from March 15 to 19, 1965.  Glen’s reflections below on his experiences in Montgomery help draw a frame around the scenes he photographed during those dramatic days. He also offers an interesting self-critique of his fledgling documentary skills and approach to documentary photography.

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Marching in Montgomery, 1965

Montgomery in March, 1965: Images from the front lines of the freedom struggle Selma has been much in public consciousness in recent months, owing to the release of the movie of the same name, the city’s historical place and symbolic importance in the (renewed) contention over voting rights in the nation and, of course, this […]