By Rebecca E. Blanton
Women veterans are slowly gaining recognition for their service, but have yet to achieve the same level of recognition as men. I have been steeped in research about women veterans in California and listening to their voices. One thing I have heard is that women who have served in the military do not necessarily see themselves as veterans.
Encapsulating this is a comment by one woman who stated, “I wish I would have known I was a veteran.” In her mid-50s with a bachelor’s degree, married to a veteran and having served in the Army for four years, she had spent much of her life thinking she was not a veteran. For her, like many, a veteran is an older man who served in combat - not a woman and not someone who served during peacetime.
It is important not only that the public recognizes former servicewomen as veterans, but also that women veterans identify themselves that way. First and foremost, their service and sacrifice needs to be honored. We ask women to give of their time, their bodies and their careers to serve this country, which deserves the appropriate respect in society.
Second, when women do not recognize their own service, they remain disconnected from the benefits they have earned. Women veterans use their educational and tax benefits less frequently than their male peers, mostly because they don’t know about or don’t think they qualify for the same benefits even though they have given the same service.
Third, civilians need to understand the sacrifice we ask our military families, especially women, to make. If we don’t recognize women veterans, how will we come to understand the full implications of asking women to go to war? Our analysis can’t be limited to the male perspective.
It may seem basic, but simply changing the question we ask from, “Are you a veteran?” to “Have you served in the military?” could do a lot to change the way women veterans see themselves and change the way we all recognize their service.
Women in gender studies and the women’s movement have focused a lot on the power of language. Changing the universal from he to s/he or alternating between she/he has altered the way we conceive of the default person. It is no longer just men who dominate the universal concept of a human.
We need to do the same for our women veterans. We need to change the dialogue to recognize their service. Simply changing the way we ask about service history can increase the number of self-identified veterans. This small change will lead to fewer women veterans diminishing their own contributions and will increase the number of Americans who recognize that women are now a key part of our military.
Rebecca E. Blanton is the Senior Policy Analyst and incoming Executive Director of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.