Redefining "Veteran": The Vietnam War and the Making of Women Veterans 1979-1997

Jacobs, Amy Rebecca, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace E. Hale, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hitchcock, William, Department of History, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, Department of History, University of Virginia
Sanders, Lynn, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Despite their service in every armed conflict throughout the nation's history, American women, unlike men, have not been granted veteran status by virtue of their service alone. Rather, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, women who served with the Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War worked to broaden the category of veteran to include their service. Women Vietnam veterans' ability to redefine "veteran" grew out of myriad factors: the nature of the war in Vietnam and its demands on women's service; women's negotiation of the gendered expectations of nursing and the realities of their lived experiences during and after the war; ideas of the women's movement and the changes it brought to American society in the 1960s and 1970s; Vietnam veterans' movement activism for reevaluation of the medical implications of war and the changes that reevaluation necessitated for the meaning of combat; and women's ability to view their service as separate from and often in opposition to long-held assumptions about women's relationship to the military and war. After revisions to the medical definition of combat in 1980 that removed sex as a central element of its construction, women reevaluated their war experiences as similar to men's, they laid claim to combat-related PTSD, and used PTSD to reshape the definition of veteran. Negotiating feminist debates over their sameness to or difference from men, women organized alongside male Vietnam veterans to challenge the Veterans' Administration's discriminatory policy that provided differential sex-based medical services to men and women. Following recognition as legitimate veterans by the VA, the most powerful arbiter of veteran identity, women challenged their invisibility and the iii construction of veteran on the public landscape of war commemoration. Scholars have posited that in the 1980s the military became an inclusive institution that provided equal opportunity for women. This dissertation demonstrates women themselves were powerful agents of change. They drew attention to the similarities between men and women's war experiences and the consequences of war, they forced the federal government to be accountable to women, and they reshaped the military and Americans' view of women as service members and veterans.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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