If you have ever visited Arlington National Cemetery, you've traveled down Memorial Avenue. Before you make a sharp left guided by security to the parking garage, you likely saw Arlington's ceremonial entrance, also known as Military Women's Memorial.
After proceeding through the visitor center, you stood in line only yards away from the only prominent national memorial honoring all women who have defended America throughout history.
I bet you walked right past it. I know I did. I didn't realize it then, but at that moment, it was symbolic of the many issues faced by women veterans, including myself, both during and after serving our country, to be overlooked much like the memorial itself.
Living Herstory: More than a memorial
While Arlington National Cemetery is visited by millions of people, the Military Women's Memorial, formally known as Women In Military Service For America (WIMSA), is lucky to surpass over 100,000 visitors annually.
I had only heard about the memorial in 2018 after paying my respects at the cemetery. I saw a sign, and my curiosity took over. I found myself on the terrace, where an arc of large glass panels on which quotations from and about servicewomen are etched. This arc of glass introduces natural light into the memorial's Education Center.
In front of the hemicycle wall, the lower terrace is the reflecting pool and Court of Valor. I looked down and thought, wow … this memorial is for me. Still serving when I thought, well, I am not a veteran yet, so maybe this wasn't the place for me, however. Then I walked inside. I was met by portraits, artifacts and history of the women who forged the pathway to allow me to serve in the capacity I could today.
Writing on the walls: Movement doesn't always mean progress.
The memorial's Education Center, located at the heart of the hemicycle, is a computer database where you can register your loved one's stories. I began searching for women I had heard of but seldomly saw in my history books. There they were, photos, military histories and individual stories of registered women.
I was shocked to learn that over 3 million women have served our country, and only 290,000 stories had been collected. That means 2.7 million women veterans haven't shared their stories. I was also shocked to discover the Women's Military Memorial was less than 25 years old. I only predated the memorial by a few years. Yet, all I could l think of was in January 2016, all military occupations and positions became open to women, without exception. Let that sink in.
"No, that can't possibly be right," I said to myself. Women are actively fully integrated into combat roles deliberately and methodically only within the past few years.
Nonsense, women veterans will tell you we have been attached to combat units, taken and returned fire, and know what it is like to not receive the same awards because, on the books, you weren't supposed to be there. Based on the exhibits and stories I read, women have been an all-volunteer force since our country's formation. So why has it taken so long for the public to realize our contributions? Why, as a group has, have we not spoken up sooner? Why are we allowing ourselves to remain invisible despite changing social norms?
We haven't made as much progress on the books as we would like to believe. Despite always being an all-volunteer force, women were not formally under military command until the early 20th century. Thanks to the 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act, granting women permanent status in the military and entitling us to some veterans' benefits would gradually improve thanks to the women's rights movement and workplace discrimination reform.
For reference, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act is only 72 years old. Whereas the President Emeritus of Women's Military Memorial, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, turns 91 this year. Despite years of fighting to be recognized, we have not made as much progress as we think. The writing is on the walls; the movement doesn't always mean progress.