Significantly Not as Described: How Vietnam War Recruitment Sold Women a Freedom that was Never Fully Delivered

Chelsea Kiefer

Women in the United States have historically had a shaky relationship with military service. It was not until 1948, with The Women's Armed Services Integration Act, that the U.S. military allowed women to work in permanent roles.

Before then, women only held temporary positions – typically in times of war when the government was desperate for more workers. Further back, the only women who served did so clandestinely, posing as men like Deborah Sampson did in the American Revolutionary War. However, the 1960s Women's Rights Movement in the U.S. showed that times were changing, and that the military had to progress as well. Women wanted freedom and equality; many were no longer satisfied with living as wives, mothers, and with limited career choices compared to men. They had new expectations in the jobs they would accept for themselves. When the U.S. government and military needed those same women to help the Vietnam War efforts, they sold them the freedom they desired without any intention of delivering on the empty promise. The government knew that recruitment ads should try and appeal to the people in which they needed, and with the cultural changes of the 1960s, it was apparent that the government needed to reimagine its tactics to interest women. There was evidence of the growing Women's Rights Movement throughout the U.S. Compared to 1950, thirty-five percent more women were in the workforce. Still, the population of working-age women only grew fourteen percent in that same time frame, showing a dramatic increase in the number of women heading to the career field. During that time, men's employment only rose eight percent – the change was not the job market or economy, but women. Women were creating a new life for themselves in America. However, wins were not universal for women's rights, and the military sought to take advantage of women's grievances. Despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 banned discrimination and unequal pay based on sex or gender, by 1969, on average, women still earned only fifty-seven cents per every dollar a male took home. This gap was primarily due to loopholes in the law, women having few opportunities to advance in their jobs, and many fields being entirely out of their reach. Recruitment materials targeted to bring women to Vietnam began to advertise the pay benefits of the military. The ads flashed catch phrases on being equal to men and no longer having to suffer a pay gap. One article written for a college sorority's magazine advertising Navy careers for women wrote that the pay was better than other post-graduate jobs, signifying the knowledge the civilian world paid women unfairly and encouraging women to enter the military to get their fair share of income. Other ads boasted about promotion potential in the military and raises with each new rank. It is true that the military based their pay on rank, so women and men of the same position would get the same salary. They failed to make clear, though, that until 1971, the military placed limits on women's ranks. If an enlisted woman could not be promoted the same as her male colleagues, she could not have the same pay opportunities as them, either. Rank discrimination was prevalent throughout the entire decade of the 1960s, meaning few women got the same pay as men as the military promised. Pay gaps were not the only disadvantage that the Women's Movement was trying to correct. Due to the hindrance to female freedom in the 1960s, imagining the chance to travel was exciting. At the time, many women rarely left their hometowns and families did not allow young women to travel alone. Military recruitment ads told women they could travel the world, see new sights, and go to new places alone and all on the military's dime. The glossy pages bragged of a more interesting and exciting way for women to live their lives. Once enlisted, women realised the reality was more than a bit different than a free passport to become a globetrotter. Despite one Women's Army Corps pamphlet specifically stating that women would not have curfews, regulations on times for women to be back in their rooms were common among female military members. It was not rare for female office workers to be at their job post from seven in the morning until seven at night and then have a 22:30 curfew to be in their rooms alone. This left little time to mingle, meet friends, relax, write home, or even eat, let alone sightsee outside of their building. Many of the nurses also had curfews, and when off-shift, they had to stay on the medical compounds. Nurses on medical ships had to stay on board when not working, which meant they were never entirely free, spending their off-time entertaining patients and children. For other nurses, the rules about heading back to their room by a particular time did not matter as they barely had enough time off work to sleep, let alone find adventure. Twelve-hour nursing shifts extended when new wounded came in, and nurses often had to stay on call when they left the hospital rooms, which interrupted their sleep and any free time. Those who may have had time to explore were rarely in a mental condition to want to do so. U.S. forces in Vietnam were not accustomed to the hot and humid weather, which was incredibly draining on women who had to wear stockings or other skin-tight uniform items. The dust covering all surfaces added to the misery of being sticky with sweat and constantly feeling covered with filth. Many of the young nurses only had a couple of years of experience before going to Vietnam, and some were straight out of nursing school. The level of traumatic war injuries they dealt with were like nothing they could imagine and left them feeling defeated and sombre. None of these were conditions for the daring escapades that were promised to the women if they enlisted to go abroad.
Significantly Not as Described: How Vietnam War Recruitment Sold Women a Freedom that was Never Fully Delivered
Second Lieutenant Kathleen M. Sullivan treats a Vietnamese child during Operation MED CAP.

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Significantly Not as Described: How Vietnam War Recruitment Sold Women a Freedom that was Never Fully Delivered
United States Navy Nurse Lieutenant Commander Joan Brouilette, Da Nang, South Vietnam.

Women of the 1960s were also attracted to the military recruitment advertisements due to the mentions of promising careers with plentiful training. Military leaflets promised women promotions and the skills to succeed if they enlisted.

Once in Vietnam, less-than-equal pay and little personal time outside of work were not the only issues females in Vietnam faced that left them unprepared for a new and prosperous profession. The situation started with the women's work duty assignments. Those in charge generally gave the women deemed most attractive jobs in front offices, regardless of skills or previous experience. Irrespective of their assignments, females in Vietnam severely lacked adequate training before travelling to their new temporary homes. The Vietnam War experienced both medical personnel shortages, as well as more wounded than the hospitals could handle. Due to the lack of staff and the overwhelming number of patients, inexperienced nurses were in-charge of medical procedures that a doctor or surgeon would handle in the States. Other women were upset at the lack of training for Vietnam they received in preparation for deployment, which did not leave them feeling prepared to succeed. Lack of preparation put women at a disadvantage, not knowing how to properly protect themselves and having to rely on trained men to be able to save them. This contributed to the stereotype that women did not belong in Vietnam or could not handle the same jobs as men, when the military set them up for failure without the same tools given to them as their male counterparts. Though the military geared recruitment materials towards highlighting the advantages women of the 1960s sought, they often missed the mark on exactly what women desired, especially on why women were willing to go to Vietnam. There were an abundance of reasons women gave about why they decided to go to Vietnam. For some, it was a way to avoid the typical paths given to women: limited job options, marriage, and children. Others reported feeling guilty that only men were in the draft, and they wanted to participate and be near the fighting, too. Due to the sizable anti-war sentiment in the U.S., and the debates over being in Vietnam, some women even went to try to find out for themselves what was going on and how they felt about it. Of course, some women wanted things listed in the recruitment ads such as equality, better pay, more jobs, and to travel. Still, a multitude of recruitment materials assumed that the easiest way to encourage women to go to Vietnam was by emphasising that they could find men to date and, eventually, marry. Sprawling headlines enticing women to go where the men were made it seem like Vietnam would be more like a romantic spring break than an actual war zone. Multiple materials gave women the utmost assurance that the men in the dating pool in Vietnam were the finest young men, being selected by Uncle Sam, implying that the government screened the men to be the most eligible bachelors. The military assumed men would be the most significant selling point to potential women. Despite being incorrect about most women wanting to go to Vietnam to find men, the military could not even hold up that promise. These men did not treat the women who came to Vietnam with the highest esteem and were not the best dating or husband material. Many of the men there actually thought that no respectable woman would come to Vietnam, so they assumed the women would all have sex for money, which they asked them to do. When men were not asking women for sex, some were spying on them during the most private and intimate moments. The showers in many female quarters did not have roofs when the recruits arrived, so men flew helicopters directly overhead to watch the women bathe. Women reported being unable to walk anywhere without male military members whistling, calling, or leering at them. When they ignored the advances of the men, they spread rumours that the woman was a lesbian, which was still a dangerous title in the 1960s. Female veterans have accused the Army and other military branches of not punishing sexual harassment, blaming women, and even transferring men accused of sexual crimes. Even when dating did go well for women in Vietnam, they were not given the same freedom as their male counterparts, nor the ability to date without worries that the recruitment brochures would have led them to believe they would experience. The military held women solely responsible for pregnancy and discharged these women upon discovery of a pregnancy. Yet, despite a shortage of women in Vietnam, they were offered minimal means to prevent the pregnancies that would send them home. They could go to a military store to buy condoms, but only if they had the time and means to get there. Birth control pills were not readily accessible and officials did not stock them in military hospitals in Vietnam. Discharging women for becoming pregnant was not simply because women needed to be with their babies and not at work, as records show there were women released from duty for getting pregnant, even if they put the baby up for adoption. Throughout the language in the recruitment initiatives, it is evident that the authors did not take women seriously as legitimate recruits for the Vietnam War. The military materials constantly referred to women by describing their looks, calling the right candidate an ‘attractive girl,’ instead of mentioning any qualities that would help her succeed at her job. One recruitment ad, written in the form of a fictional woman deciding to join the Army, said that girls just sat around and talked about ‘dresses, jobs, [and] boys.’ It also described the female recruitment officer not by her merits, but as ‘trim and feminine in her attractive green uniform, [with] friendly brown eyes that showed quick sympathy.’ The uniforms were described as, ‘military flair with a feminine touch,’ with pages that looked more like a fashion magazine showing the year's new styles than recruitment to go to the Vietnam War, advertising a ‘pale-leaf warm weather uniform’ for ‘summer living.’ The military's attempt at showing they welcomed women included information on ‘feminine food’ being added to the dining halls, such as, ‘low-calorie vegetables, salads, and fruits.’ On top of the condescending language, the military did not keep official records on the number of women who served in Vietnam. The lack of documentation showed a little care toward their service. The low opinion of women serving contributed to the military's promises failing to give women true freedom. The military was desperate for women to join their ranks in the 1960s, especially to have them volunteer to go to Vietnam. They used many tactics to achieve this goal, but a significant source was manipulating the desires of the women's movement to promise new freedoms that only the military could grant. The women of Vietnam held the hands of dying men, clotted bleeding arteries, and held back tears as they packed belongings to go back home – without their owner. Each woman in Vietnam was there of her own choice and decision to volunteer, yet the military erased the dream of the life of military women, a dream they helped to draw and create in the minds of their recruits.
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Significantly Not as Described: How Vietnam War Recruitment Sold Women a Freedom that was Never Fully Delivered

Chelsea Kiefer

Chelsea Kiefer is an undergraduate senior at Fort Hays State University. She begins her Master’s Degree in Public History in Spring 2024, and has goals to work in a museum in the future. Chelsea lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and three spoiled rescue dogs. She is passionate about volunteering and spends time giving back local nonprofits. She is currently interning at the North Carolina Museum of History in the collections department, gaining future career skills. When not at working, Chelsea enjoys vegan food, baking, hiking with her dogs & husband, and like every historian, she spends much of her time reading.
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