June Willenz, advocate for female veterans, dies at 95
By BART BARNES | The Washington Post | Published: June 5, 2020
June Willenz, a human rights activist and advocate for equal opportunities and treatment for women in the military who played a role in creating the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, died May 3 at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She was 95.
The cause was a heart attack following surgery for a broken hip, said a daughter, Pam Willenz.
Although Willenz never herself served in the military, she was for 38 years the executive director of the American Veterans Committee, a nonprofit organization formed during World War II as a liberal alternative to veterans organizations such as the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
She wrote a book, "Women Veterans: America's Forgotten Heroines" (1983), which included personal stories about military women, focusing on inequalities with military men in benefits, career opportunities, pay and promotions.
The book "documented a pattern of neglect by government agencies [and] received broad attention resulting in congressional hearings and remedial actions," the Maryland Commission for Women wrote in a biographical note that accompanied Willenz's admission to the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.
"Her suggestion for an Advisory Committee to monitor the ongoing status of women veterans was mandated by Congress," it added. "To bring recognition to this group, she initiated efforts to establish a national memorial."
As the executive director of the American Veterans Committee, Willenz also encouraged a voice for minority issues and developed a process for legal redress for veterans with less-than-honorable discharges for such minor offenses as smoking marijuana.
Willenz was also the executive director of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, which lobbied for the creation in Washington of such a memorial.
"When you talk about veterans, most people think of men. They don't think about women, " Willenz told the Associated Press in 1985. "It's really something that's long overdue. Women wrote a very marvelous page in our history."
Congress approved the memorial in 1986, and it was dedicated in 1997. It's located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
June Adele Friedenberg was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 17, 1924. Her father was a civil engineer, her mother a housewife. She graduated in 1945 from the University of Michigan, where she also received a master's degree in philosophy in 1947. She did further study in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Her marriage to Eric Willenz ended in divorce. He had been an Army Air Forces officer during World War II, and his experiences piqued her interest in military matters. She wrote a column for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, and she also directed research for a Labor Department project on employment of female veterans.
She was executive director of the American Veterans Committee from 1965 until it disbanded in 2003.
Survivors include two daughters, Nicole Gardner of Vienna, Virginia, and Pam Willenz of Arlington; and a grandson.