Women and War: Exploring Gender in the War Memorials of D.C.

Gender is everywhere.  It is everything.  It is in the clothes we wear, and the way we sit.  It is in the jobs we choose, and the hobbies we pursue.  To try to create an environment free of gender would be nearly impossible.  In fact, in her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine explains that when parents try to raise a child in a gender-free environment, they even have to censor books, because of the de-facto male (see previous post on this subject).  Gender is in everything around us…even in our understandings of war, peace, and what it means to be Americans.

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

Back in March, I was asked to do a visual sociological research project, for which I selected the war memorials on the National Mall for my subject matter.  All block quotes and photos are from my original research.  My final paper on this subject is unpublished, but I feel that this is as good a place as any to lay out the parts of my research that deal with the war memorials and what they tell us about American society.

There is no event requiring more patriotism or nationalism than war; it necessitates a backing on the home front as well as the sacrifice and service of actual military personnel.  War carries with it a great sense of sacrifice, one felt by society long after the last eulogies are read, but the accomplishments of war remain important to society long after the last shots are fired as well.  In memorializing war, America embeds crucial symbolism that reflects core values of American society and reinforces what it means to be American, as well as how those involved in war perform Americanism, in a way that allows for the perpetuation of these values.  This intersection of functionality and symbology lies at the heart of the war memorials and their construction, and continues to reflect the way in which society understands war, its costs, and what it means to represent America and her interests.

From The War Memorials: Monuments to Americans and Americanism, 2011

I know, that was a lot to swallow.  But the fact of the matter is that in these war memorials, we do symbolically embed the ideas of patriotism, service, and sacrifice, the idea that one has a duty to one’s country, and that one is a part of the overarching principles of the conglomerate.  In America, we consider freedom to be one of those primary values, along with democracy and meritocracy.  (We’ll talk at a later date about the sociological issues behind those particular values)  And so when we memorialize these people in the ultimate act of being Americans, we memorialize what it means to BE American.  And we create a dichotomy between what it means to be an American man verses what it means to be an American woman.

War is portrayed as a particularly masculine activity.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking books, plays, movies, or war

The Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, which depicts men in battle formation as the monument's centerpiece, with a reflective wall covered in etchings behind

memorials, war is always masculine.  In the Korean War Memorial, the statues of the men are the central features of the memorial, while women are thrown discreetly into the etchings on the wall behind them–a wall designed to reflect the male statues, making it appear that there are more.  This creates a visual message that men are central to war, while women are merely background actors.

Critics of feminism may say that that is particularly nit-picky on my part, but from a symbolic interactionist standpoint*, the way that we depict gender and gendered figures in these memorials does help to reinforce a message.

Korean War Memorial aside, there is a more prominent, overarching theme of differentiation seen in the depiction of women and men on the National Mall, and it was this differentiation that I was most interested in:

Sociologically, an interesting problem arises in the memorialization of the role of women in the wars.  Though historically women did not play an active role in the war as combatants, by differentiating the services performed by women (mainly in the context of providing medical care), the memorials perpetuate a perceptual divide between the contributions each gender makes, or is capable, of making to society.  The fact that the majority of women who died in the Vietnam War are not memorialized on the wall but seven are is particularly telling—this indicates that society places a symbolic value on the way one died in evaluating their service and dedication.  Moreover, because contributions to war are depicted as the ultimate displays of Americanism, by memorializing women separately and thereby perpetuating the distinction between men and women in war, these memorials reinforce the idea that in American society, men and women have markedly different roles—that they are not necessarily equal, that their roles are meant to be separated, that what it means to be an American man is not equivalent to what it means to be an American woman and that as such, they do not occupy the same status associated with being “an American”.This is somewhat divergent from the initial intent behind creating, for example, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial—by including this statue, the government meant to adequately honor the role that women played, to acknowledge their contributions, and solve for the apparent lack of women both on the memorial Wall as well as on the National Mall in general.  But by separating the women out and alternatively labeling them as supporting actors—which is how they are portrayed throughout the war memorials—these monuments serve to reinforce the idea that women were secondary to men.

From War Memorials: Monuments to Americans and Americanism, 2011

Above: the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which depicts female nurses attending a wounded soldier. What does this tell us about women's roles in the war, and how their sacrifices were portrayed?

Was this an explicit intention of the designers of the war memorials?  Probably not.  I don’t want anyone thinking that I am accusing those who designed these monuments of sexism.  Rather, I am more interested in how this gender distinction became so ingrained in our culture that it manifested and memorialized itself in this way.  How did women’s contributions become so secondary?  Why were other women who died along the seven female names that appear on the Wall at the Vietnam Memorialexcluded from the same level of honor?  How did the homefront come to be forgotten?

And why does society so often forget the price that women pay, even when it is only men who go off to war?

*Symbolic Interactionism, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a school of sociological thought that stems from the work of Max Weber and focuses on the use of symbols to store and convey meaning

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~ by Randi Saunders on August 11, 2011.

3 Responses to “Women and War: Exploring Gender in the War Memorials of D.C.”

  1. […] More: Women and War: Exploring Gender in the War Memorials of D.C. … This entry was posted on Thursday, August 11th, 2011 and is filed under All Posts. You can […]

  2. […] a previous post about women and the war memorials in Washington DC, I shared my research about the way that we […]

  3. […] Women and War: Exploring Gender in the War Memorials of D.C. […]

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