Thank you, Secretary Cohen, for that introduction.
One hundred and fifty years ago, when the struggle for women's rights began, it was often said that a woman's chief job in life was to raise virtuous sons who would then go out into the world and fight the battles, win the wars, and do the right things.
Just as in battle, the fight often comes down to one decisive moment. For women’s rights, that took place seventy-five years later, when the suffragists faced losing ratification on women's voting rights by one vote.
Then Harry Burn, a 24-year-old legislator from my home state of Tennessee, changed his NO vote to YES. Why? Because he had gotten a letter from his mother saying, "Be a good boy Harry, and do the right thing!"
Well, he did the right thing, and the rest is history. Throughout the month of March, as we celebrate Women's History Month, this and other stories of women's struggle for equality will be told in our schools and classrooms.
But one story that is rarely told in our history books is the story of women in the military. Their struggle for the right to defend our nation dates back to the beginning of our nation, when women often disguised themselves as men to fight.
Throughout the conflicts and wars fought to keep our nation free, the names of our military heroes ring familiar -- Paul Revere, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Norman Schwarzkopf.
But what of our heroines. How many history books and grade school children mark the names of Clara Maas, Mary Walker, Agnes Mangerich or Marie Rossi.
Clara Maas was a nurse during the Spanish-American War who helped Dr. Walter Reed discover the cause of yellow fever. She died as a result of the experiment.
Dr. Mary Walker was a prisoner of war during the Civil War and the first and only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for her military service.
Agnes Mangerich was a flight nurse who crash-landed in German-occupied Albania during World War II. She hiked to safety -- a journey that took her and her comrades nearly two months through the mountains of Europe during winter.
And Marie Rossi was an Army helicopter pilot during the Gulf War who made the ultimate sacrifice. In a CNN interview just days before her death, she responded to the question about how it was to be a woman facing such danger and her answer was that it was her job...there was nothing peculiar about her being a woman -- she was just the person called upon to do it.
Rhonda Cornum, another heroine from the Gulf War who suffered at the hands-off the Iraqis as a prisoner of war, once commented: "The qualities that are most important in all military jobs -- things like integrity, moral courage, and determination -- have nothing to do with gender."
Yet gender has proven to be a barrier for women in so many ways for so very long. In the U.S. Armed Services, necessity has often led to opportunity for women. And when our country needed them, they answered the call.
Isn't it ironic that women served in military roles before they even earned the right to vote? And too often, after the conflict had ended or the war was won, they were told to go home again. Even as we celebrate 150 years since women first won the right to vote -- we also celebrate 50 years since women won the right to serve as permanent members of our nations military.
As is the case throughout the history of the woman's movement, women in the military have not sought special treatment or status. Rather, they have sought equal and fair treatment -- the ability to defend our freedom, to choose our leaders and to participate equally in the acts and decisions that determine our collective destiny. Beatrice Hood Stroup, a WAC during World War II captured that feeling when she said, "It wasn't just my brother’s country or my husband's country, and it was my country as well. And this war wasn't just their war, it was my war, and I needed to serve invite"
These words and the words of Rhonda Corium can be found inscribed in glass and reflected on the walls of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Last October, I joined my husband, Secretary Cohen, Brigadier General Wilma Vott, and nearly 36,000 military women, past and present, to celebrate women's service in the military and dedicate the memorial. As I toured the incredible facility, located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery -- our nation's most honored military resting place, Idealized one important thing -- this Memorial and the historic service of our nation's military women is a legacy of our past -- yes -- but it is also a promise of our future -- a future in which young girls can be whatever they can dream -- and where those dreams just as often may include visions of becoming pilots, soldiers, sailors, generals, and yes, even, Presidents.
In the last five years, the barriers to women's service have fallen at an incredible pace. Some of the firsts include:
- Sheila Windfall -- the first woman to serve as Secretary of one of the services;
- Vice Admiral Tracy of the Navy, General Mutter of the Marine Corps and General Kennedy of the Army -- the first women to attain the rank of3-stars.
- Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins -- the first woman to command space shuttle -- Discovery;
- Since 1991, when Congress repealed the law banning women's duty on combat aircraft, and 1993, when the law was repealed for combat ships, women have been serving in those positions in theaters around the world;
- Today, women are deployed in every theater, including Somalia and Bosnia, where women have served as battalion commanders. Military service -- historically the proving ground for women who don’t believe in life's barriers -- has broken ground and paved the way for all women. And we thank you.
And doors of opportunity are opening across the spectrum. Women play a vital role not only in shaping our nation's military, but also our workforce and our economy. For example, did you know that?
- more than 200,000 women are currently serving in the United States Armed Forces, comprising 14 percent of the total force;
- almost 1 in 2 workers in America is a woman; and,
- Women in the workforce add $2.3 trillion annually to the U.S. economy.
As we move into the 21st century, the role and contributions of women will become crucially important as we navigate the changes in our military and our society. And, it is the job done by those of you serving today which will continue to open those doors of opportunity. You are the groundbreakers and the inspiration for future generations.
Before I conclude today, I do want to offer a special message for the men and women who serve in the armed forces. The work you are doing, in times of crisis and in times of peace, is so very important. And I remember so well the relationships and friendships that Al and I shared with military families during his service in the Army. I even remember with great fondness our first home after we got married -- on base at Fort Rucker, Alabama! Please know that our thoughts are with you as you serve our nation and we are forever grateful for your duty and service.
Gore, Mary Elizabeth (Tipper), 1998. "Women's History Month Ceremony." The White House. https://clintonwhitehouse4.archives.gov/WH/EOP/VP_Wife/speeches/19980306-4402.html.