Two statues guard the entrance of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia: Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess responsible for wisdom and war, and a female American soldier, the personification of those attributes. The USAWM was originally part of Fort McClellan, Alabama, but moved to Virginia after the base closed in 1999. It opened at Fort Lee in 2001, but it was only five years ago that the museum became the first American military installation to display a statue of a female soldier. This timeline parallels women’s fight to both participate in the U.S. military and be recognized for their participation. The museum does a very good job at establishing the fact that women have always been involved in American wars; it was official recognition of their contributions that trailed behind.
The museum begins and ends with a large tree adorned with replicas of dog tags left behind by fallen female soldiers. One electronic exhibit allows the visitor to select the names of individual soldiers and pull up their pictures and a short biography and service record. Sacrifice is key to the USAWM: from the “unofficial” soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the WACs of WWII and combat soldiers of Desert Storm and following, female sacrifice was essential to American military success.
As described on its website, the USAWM is a “repository of artifacts and archives,” but also “an educational institution.” The curators have done a fantastic job integrating elements that will keep younger visitors interested and entertained. A theater in a small alcove explains the role of Walt Disney animation in the war effort and shows several WWII-era Donald Duck cartoons produced during the time. There is also an area that allows children to try on the various caps/head gear, uniform pieces, and arms mentioned and depicted in the exhibits. Kids can also take home free coloring pages as a souvenir.
The USWM is also an important resource for historians and researchers. Appointments to view the archives or explore their service member oral histories can be made on the museum website. The archive holds over 1.5 million documents, including books, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other formats. The museum also allows visitors to take home copies of the U.S. Army Center for Military History’s books on the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) by historians Bettie J. Morden and Mattie E. Treadwell. As military history has long been the domain of men, finding sources about military women written by military women is refreshing to say the least. Morden’s and Treadwell’s works would be extremely useful to students and researchers interested in investigating female participation in the army from 1942 to 1978. Treadwell’s Special Studies text provides additional information on mid-century American interpretations of gender and war and reflects on how these interpretations shaped what military women were and were not allowed to do during wartime.
The U.S. Army Women’s Museum is easy to overlook, but well worth a visit. At the time of our visit (March 1, 2018), several exhibits were under construction, including redesign of a gallery and an expansion of one area. I’m definitely planning a return visit to see the new pieces and check out the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum next door.
The United States Army Women’s Museum / 2100 Avenue A / Fort Lee, Virginia / www.awm.lee.army.mil / 804-734-4327 / Tues. through Sat., 1000-1700