By: Kelly E. Dyer, Director of Programs
When the former Oregon Women Veterans Coordinator, Elizabeth Estabrooks, MSW, presented a training on “Identifying Women Veterans: What’s in it for Everyone?” I knew it was something I couldn’t miss.
Even though I’m from a military family, there’s a lot of important information about women veterans that we all need to know.
Recognizing Women as Veterans
When you see a woman walking down the road carrying her baby and groceries, would you think she’s a veteran? What if you saw a Texas beauty queen, or a woman alongside a man at the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center? Is she a veteran?
Too often, the image that comes to mind when we think of a “veteran” is an older, white man who is proudly wearing an Army hat and has seen serious combat abroad. This depiction has become so normalized in our culture (such as in movies, video games, the news, commercials, etc.) that it might be hard for you to believe the military is actually one of the most diverse organizations in the world! People from all races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and backgrounds are represented in the veterans population, even though we don’t necessarily see this reflected in our media or everyday life.
Stereotyping Puts Limits on Women Veterans
Our culture still limits what we view as “women’s roles” to include mostly activities that involve sensitivity and caring for others, such as mothers, nurses, teachers, or assistants. It’s a challenge for many people to believe that a woman can play Legos with her kids one day and the next be deployed to Afghanistan to drive tankers through bomb-laden roads!
Even at VA clinics and hospitals, women report they are often assumed to be the spouses or caregivers of men veterans rather than be seen as veterans themselves.1 While these stereotypes are slowly being debunked, it’s still easier to believe that almost all veterans are older, white men and almost all women aren’t suited for the physical and emotional challenges of military life.
One woman veteran even told me that someone asked her why she was “playing dress up in her father’s military uniform,” and he didn’t believe her when she said they were her own fatigues.
When 74% of women veterans surveyed said the general public did not recognize their service, it’s a wakeup call that we must do better to support our women veterans!1