Visitors to the U.S. Army Women’s Museum are first struck by the elegant stained glass windows spraying streams of color into the open entranceway. The museum staff members who greet you are female soldiers, and Sgt. Yolanda Scipio-Jones has been one of them.
“It’s a real milestone for women to have this museum,” she says. “We finally are being recognized for what we’ve done in building the military.”
Established at Fort Lee, Va., in May 2001, the museum provides a glimpse at the rarely seen world of women in the military, from the American Revolution to Bosnia and Kosovo. Women worked not only as nurses and clerks, but also as soldiers, pilots, officers, physicians, and even spies. During the American Revolution and the Civil War, they even dressed as men and fought beside them. And, like men, women have been killed in battle and taken as prisoners of war.
But it wasn’t until 1943 that the Army officially recognized women as more than auxiliary forces. That was the year they could join the newly established Women’s Army Corps as “WACs.” In 1948, the WAC Training Center was established at Fort Lee.
The center moved to more spacious facilities in Fort McClellan, Ala., in 1954. As the number of women in the military continued to grow, so did their desire to have their accomplishments recognized. So active duty and retired WACs, friends, and civilian supporters raised $500,000 in private donations to create the Women’s Army Corps Museum in 1978, the same year Congress decided to end the WACs’ separate status and assimilate them into the other branches of the Army.
“The women who built the museum included the (newest) recruits all the way up,” says Jackie Wolfe, a Vietnam-era veteran and former museum staff member. “They put up the money because they wanted to have a record of their history.”
But in 1999, Fort McClellan was slated to close, taking the WAC museum with it. Congress was deluged with protests from current and former military personnel, and after a two-month campaign to save the museum—spearheaded by museum director Jerry Burgess—Congress approved its relocation.
Fort Lee was chosen from three sites. With roughly 6,000 military and family members living on base, it is a close-knit community.
“Many of the women who worked on creating the original museum served at Fort Lee,” Wolfe says.
The Washington D.C. area has proven to be a good location for the museum, drawing not only regular visitors, but researchers, graduate students, military personnel, and filmmakers from the History Channel. Staff members from the nearby U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Women in Military Service of America also have used the museum for research.
As you see identically dressed military men and women exploring the exhibits and gazing at the images of World War II women dressed in exercise uniforms of bloomers and dresses, the advances of Army women become vividly apparent.
“Many are unaware of the struggles that women initially had to face when entering the Army during World War II,” says Burgess, who will return to Alabama once the museum is fully on its feet. “It especially amazes me how excited today’s Army women are to learn of their own history and how they can learn from those before them.”
The museum includes a patriotism exhibit, as well as a look at recruitment efforts and World War II posters, women in the air, women at West Point, life in the field, and uniforms. It even features a collection of dolls from around the world that Army women bought during their travels.
More than 1 million women are current or former members of the military, and many have visited the museum and been touched at seeing their history in the making.
But many other Americans also visit and find inspiration in the stories of courage. One day a motorcyclist wearing a leather jacket made his way through the museum. He broke down when he saw a dedication to his wife, Military Police Sgt. First Class Jeanne M. Balcombe, who died in Korea in 1999 protecting soldiers under her command by placing herself between them and a gunman. It is for her, and women like her, that the U.S. Army Women’s Museum was created.