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Women in the Military: Willing ★ Able ★ Essential

PA educators and JROTC click here to pay (prices at bottom of page)

Film Summary
Since America's founding, women have been driven by patriotic zeal to serve their country, while concurrently pursuing greater economic and social opportunity.  From uncommon soldiers who disguised themselves to fight and nurses that faced horrific wounds to those who proudly wear the uniform in battle zones today, women have contributed to our military might in ways unknown to most Americans.  This is their story.  It is a tale of pride and love of country; a quest for status and recognition; a journey of dedication to the freedoms we all relish.


Revolutionary War: During our fight for freedom against British rule, both Armies recruited women as cooks, laundresses and nurses.  Deborah Sampson was the first known woman to disguise herself in order to serve as a soldier.  Mary Ludwig Hays, “Molly Pitcher,” followed her husband into battle and took over his battlefield position.

Civil War: Although essentially second-class citizens, women played many roles supporting both sides during the Civil War.  They sometimes followed their husbands and fathers into war and acting as cooks, laundresses and nurses.  American Red Cross founder Clara Barton cared for countless men and personally provided medical supplies to the front.  Contract surgeon Dr. Mary Walker was taken as a prisoner of war and later became the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Some uncommon women disguised themselves as men to valiantly fight as soldiers.  Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman proved invaluable as a scout and spy.

Spanish-American War: This conflict marked the entry of 'trained' female civilian nurses who cared for thousands stricken by disease outbreaks in stateside camps.  All were volunteers, including a number of 'immune' African American women, and others who served on an Army hospital ship. The Army and Navy Nurse Corps were created in the early 1900's, major milestones in recognizing the value of women.


WWI: An established cadre of Army and Navy nurses faced the aftermath of trench and chemical warfare when serving overseas during WWI.  Women physicians broke down barriers and were employed as contract surgeons.  The Navy, Marines and Coast Guard recruited women to serve in support capacities at home so that men could be 'freed' to serve on the front lines.  It marked the first time women, other than nurses, were enlisted in the armed forces. Although social feminists gained influence with the public, women had yet to gain the right to vote.

WWII: Massive changes in women's military contributions occurred during WWII as enhanced recruitment and expanded opportunities allowed some 400,000 to serve in almost all noncombat positions.  Patriotism and service to country were key motivations.  WAC served in almost every foreign theatre.  They joined dedicated nurses who cared for the wounded after major battles like Iwo Jima, treated concentration camp survivors and braved three years as prisoners of war in the Philippines.  On the home front, Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS and Marine Corps Women’s Reservists “freed men to fight” on the battlefield. Military women were "with, but not in" the military and their units disbanded at the war's end.


Korean War: In 1948, President Truman signed into law an act to integrate the armed services, providing permanent slots for women.  But the decade of the 1950's proved to offer fewer opportunities for women in the military and was underscored by dismal recruiting efforts.  Nonetheless, thousands of nurses bravely faced rough conditions on the battlefield, on planes and on boats aiding the wounded from the frigid Korean War theatre. An emphasis on femininity and unfriendly family policies reflected cultural thinking about the “proper” role of women during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Vietnam War: The women's rights movement strived for greater equality in the late 1960's, but in the military, opportunities were limited.  The escalating Vietnam War prompted urgent calls for nurses in Southeast Asia.  While approximately 7,500 military women served overseas, most - some 6,000 - were nurses.  But, they proved their mettle braving enemy shellings of hospitals and the bloody aftermath of battles.  A major career barrier was shattered as the first woman achieved general officer rank.  But upon return from an unpopular war, the contributions of women were largely ignored.  


1970's – 1990’s: This was a period of great change, sparked by the end of the draft and the military's pressing need for new volunteers.  Legal and policy challenges began to open the door of opportunity to women in the armed forces with equal benefits.  Women gained entrance as sailors on ships, pilots of aircraft, and cadets in the service academies.  Women deployed in Panama and Grenada sometimes found themselves under fire, as the issue of excluding females from “combat” roles raged on.  Military women were tested to good public response when deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Women took over top commands, lost their lives under enemy fire and proved their mental strength when held as prisoners of war.

Current times: During the past decade, women have served in almost all military positions, excluded only from direct combat jobs, special forces units and submarine duty.  Their contributions and numbers are now not only essential to the armed forces, their presence is highly visible in 'war against terrorism' campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They fly combat missions and command ground units, are awarded top medals for heroism, and act with valor when faced with enemy combatants in an unconventional war that has no defined 'frontline.'  Many women have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  Their deepest desire is not to be viewed as women, but to be recognized for their patriotic contributions as just soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

Request the DVD

The Pennsylvania Veterans Museum is pleased to offer a DVD of this film free to all PA educators and JROTC programs, however we request a fee for shipping and handling. One film is $6.95, two films $8.95, three films $10.95, four films $12.95 and five films $14.95.  All out of state educators receive a discount, paying $12 per film. For non-educators, we request a fee of $15 to cover the cost of production, duplication and delivery. Reserve your copy now>>

Lesson Plans

This film is accompanied by lesson plans designed for both General population lesson plans and JROTC programs. Each has a slightly different format; educators should feel free to review both and determine which format they prefer for their individual classes.

The General population lesson plans are available in either a two- or five-day plan. Again, educators are encouraged to review and select the amount of time they would like to dedicate to this topic.

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The American Humanitarian Effort: Out-takes from Vietnam, The untold story of humanitarian efforts during and after the Vietnam War
Women in the Military: Willing • Able • Essential