The Vietnam Women’s Memorial: Representations of Women in the Nation’s Public Memory

The history of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial not only reflects the debate over the inclusiveness of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but also the broader struggles over who and what become part of the nation’s public memory. Our monuments and memorials have often failed to represent complex gender, racial, and other diverse perspectives inherent in U.S. society. The removal of Civil War monuments commemorating the Confederacy, such as the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond in 2021, continue to spark heated debate amidst a backdrop of rising white supremacist activities and increased calls for racial justice. The installation of the Women’s Rights Pioneers statue in New York’s Central Park in 2020, the first statue in the park to depict women realistically, also proved controversial.[1] When dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, later known as “The Wall,” honored those who died in the recent Vietnam War, but it likewise incited controversies over representation. One group advocating for additional representation included the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, which, over the course of the next ten years, 1983-1993, successfully fought for the inclusion of a statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, depicting women veterans, especially nurses, who served in the Vietnam War.

Diane Carlson Evans, a Vietnam veteran and nurse, founded the Vietnam Nurses Memorial Project in 1984 to establish a national memorial to the women, both military and civilian, who served in the war. The Project was later renamed the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project (VWMP), and then, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation (VWMF). The VWMP also brought together women who had a shared experience in Vietnam by creating Sister Search, a database of the names of women who had served in the war. Such a database was necessary because the Defense Department had not collected this information, and women “still had not achieved full status as veterans.[2] The VWMP’s first proposal for the memorial was The Nurse, designed by Wisconsin sculptor Rodger Brodin.  For the more than 250,000 women who served in the military during the Vietnam War and the approximately 11,000 who were sent to Vietnam, mostly serving as nurses, the importance of a memorial commemorating their service seemed undeniable.

“The Wall” includes a chronological listing of over 58,000 names of military service members who died in Vietnam, including the names of eight women.[3] Maya Ying Lin intentionally designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be minimalist and nonrepresentational in nature. Lin’s design for the memorial was selected by an all-male committee from over 1,400 anonymous entries.[4] In her statement as the winner of the design competition, Lin described the memorial as “a rift in the earth – a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth.”  She continued, “Walking into the grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial we can barely make out the names upon the memorial walls. These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying those individuals into a whole.  For this memorial is meant not as a monument to the individual, but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during the war, as a whole.”[5]

Architectural drawing showing memorial as plan and perspective; includes textual description.

Maya Ying Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition drawing, 1981. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

A young, confident Chinese American undergraduate student, Lin became a target of sexism and racism after winning the design competition for the memorial. She was also criticized for her non-veteran status.[6]  Proposals to revise Lin’s design immediately surfaced, often declaring that her design was negative and sorrowful; did not instill honor and pride; and “was not heroic enough.”[7] Lin objected, writing forcefully, “I disapprove of the proposed additions to the original design. Not only is each additional element unnecessary in and of itself, but more importantly these ‘enhancements’ violate the original concept.[8] The “enhancements” included a flagpole at the entrance to the memorial, and a bronze sculpture, The Three Soldiers, a realistic depiction of three male servicemen – one who is white, one who is African American, and one who is of uncertain heritage, but who is often identified as Latino. These two additions were added to the memorial in 1984, without Lin’s approval.

Once the representational statue of The Three Soldiers was proposed and added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it became more evident to women who had served in Vietnam and during the war that women were being excluded from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.[9]  And, these women and their supporters fought harder for inclusion of a representational figure of their own, one that would exemplify women’s sacrifices in war.  VWMP chair Donna Marie-Boulay argued that, “Women served in Vietnam in many capacities. We served as personnel specialists, journalists, clerk-typists, intelligence officers, and nurses.  There was no such thing as a generic woman solider, as there was no such thing as a generic male solider.”[10] John P. Wheeler lll, chair of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, stated, “It is my conviction that the figure of a woman in the memorial area would help youth, young girls, understand their country better and respond in a deeper way to the memorial, and it will plant a seed that they will always remember of empathy with their country and its purposes.”[11]

In 1987, the VWMP hit a snag in their lobbying efforts when the U.S. Fine Arts Commission rejected their proposal in a public hearing.  Other detractors followed suit, including J. Carter Brown, chair of the commission, who lamented that proposals to change the memorial “will never end,” meaning that the memorial did not need additional representational statues and that the VWMP proposal would set continuing precedent for additional statues on the site.[12]  Designer Maya Lin maintained her stance that she was opposed to any and all additions to her design.[13]  One journalist noted that “The wall and these soldiers, the point men of an infantry squad, are intended to stand for all who served. This definitively cannot be said of the proposed nurse – she represents a special group.”  Representing all possible groups, including ethnic groups, professional groups, etc., become a sticking point to arguments against the additional memorial representing women.[14]

Photography of the Vietnam Women's Memorial with trees in background.

Carol M. Highsmith, Photographer, Vietnam Women’s Memorial, circa 1990s. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Wall became a place of healing and reunion for many Vietnam veterans, their families, and friends, including women who served and those who stayed at home. One military mother, Eleanor Timmerman, expressed this sentiment in a letter to the Fine Arts Commission, but also advocated for women to be represented more openly at the memorial. She wrote, “To see that this healing can continue I urge the commission to talk to the veterans, wives and mothers and realize that a woman’s statue is really needed at the site of the Vietnam Memorial. The women who served in all branches of the armed services, humanitarian organizations and the women who waited at home deserve to be honored….For the mother of a son who was in Vietnam and a daughter who served in the Marines during the Vietnam era nothing could be more appropriate or appreciated.”[15]

The VWMP eventually won their fight to have a representational statue erected on the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Dedicated on November 11, 1993, the statue, designed by Texas artist Glenna Goodacre, evolved from the depiction of a lone nurse to that of three women, including one woman who is African American. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial also portrays women in various occupations, such as nurses, air traffic controllers, and communications specialists. One of the figures, who is kneeling in grief, is interpreted by some to represent women on the home front. Of course, criticisms of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial continued after the dedication, and interpretations of the entire site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, including the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, continue to evolve as the Vietnam conflict recedes further into the memories of many Americans.[16] As sites of healing, of grief, of colonialism, of representation, of exclusion, and of erasure, our memorials are continuously going through processes of reinvention and attempts to understand the past, whether through obvious, tangible additions, or through less perceptible changes in the memories of all those who visit them.

For those researchers wishing to delve deeper into the history of these memorials, the debates, and the activism behind them, the Manuscript Division is home to the recently processed records of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

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[1] Nora McGreevy, “Why the First Monument of Real Women in Central Park Matters – and Why It’s Controversial,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 26, 2020.

[2] Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, “The Sexual Politics of Memory: The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project and ‘The Wall,’” Prospects 14 (October 1989): 348.

[3] The names of these women are Eleanor Grace Alexander, Pamela Dorothy Donovan, Carol Ann Drazba, Annie Ruth Graham, Elizabeth Ann Jones, Mary Therese Klinker, Sharon Ann Lane, and Hedwig Diane Orlowski.

[4] Kim S. Theriault, “Go Away Little Girl: Gender, Race, and Controversy in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Prospects 29 (October 2005): 596.

[5] Maya Ying Lin, “Design Competition: Winning Designer’s Statement,” undated, Box 33, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Theriault, “Go Away Little Girl,” 596-599.

[7] Theriault, “Go Away Little Girl,” 597; and “Transcript of Maya Lin Interview on the ‘Today’ Show,” July 12, 1982, Box 33, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Maya Ying Lin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc., September 20, 1982, Box 33, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Diane Carlson Evans, Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C. (New York: Permuted Press, 2020), 136, 161; and Theriault, “Go Away Little Girl,” 608-611.

[10] Statement of Donna-Marie Boulay, Vietnam Women’s Memorial: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks, and Forests of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate… February 23, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1988), 90. 

[11] Statement of John P. Wheeler III, Vietnam Women’s Memorial: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks, and Forests of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate… February 23, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1988), 29-30.

[12] Benjamin Forgey, “Commission Vetoes Vietnam Women’s Statue: Memorial Rejected,” Washington Post, October 23, 1987, B1.

[13] Forgey, “Commission Vetoes…”

[14] Benjamin Forgey, “Women and the Wall, Memorial Proposal: Honor without Integrity,” Washington Post, October 22, 1987, E1.

[15] Eleanor Timmerman to J. Carter Brown, undated (circa 1987), Box 27, Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] For one example of contemporaneous criticism see: Christopher Knight, “More Is Not Better,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1993, WB9; for more recent scholarship on the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, including regarding representations of Vietnamese women, see: Monika Zychlinska, “Heroines of Compassion and National Consolers: The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation and the Politics of Memory,” Journal of American Studies 56, no. 3 (July 2022): 447-482.

One Comment

  1. Arsenio lopez
    November 20, 2022 at 10:54 am

    These statues are very important to those who served and those who didn’t. There is no place for petti stuff people go through. Let’s no fall on stupidity.

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