Virginia International Tattoo recognizes the long road women have fought to serve in the military
By DENISE WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: April 19, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Life as a woman in the 1960s Army was difficult enough for Margarethe Cammermeyer. As a young lieutenant, she saw men cross the street rather than walk by and salute her.
When she became pregnant in 1968, the military said she had to leave.
She returned to service in the Army Reserve and later faced another battle once she revealed that she was gay. It would be a fight that would reshape military history.
Now retired, Cammermeyer is proud of her 31 years of service and will discuss her story next weekend during the Virginia International Tattoo in Norfolk.
“By joining the military, I always believed that I could do something meaningful with that experience and that was certainly validated for me throughout my military career.”
The tattoo is an annual spectacle of pomp, circumstance and revelry produced by military bands and performers from around the world.
This year’s theme salutes women in the military as part of the state’s 2019 commemoration of watershed episodes in Virginia’s history. Among several key 1619 events: Virginia's new legislature voting to recruit more English women to relocate here and help stabilize the new colony.
Women will be in the spotlight during the tattoo’s performances from Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28, and a “Courage, Commitment and Leadership Forum” will be held Friday afternoon featuring a panel of distinguished women, including Cammermeyer.
Marilla Cushman, director of public relations for the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, has been working with the Virginia Arts Festival's tattoo staff this year and is a veteran herself – 25 years in the Army.
The museum honors the nearly 3 million women who have served in a myriad of roles going back to the American Revolution, including Sarah Shattuck and friends, who took up pitchforks to defend a bridge, and others who sewed shirts for male soldiers.
As a veteran and spokesperson for the museum, Cushman is honored by the tattoo’s focus. The hard fight that women have faced has often been overlooked, she said.
"They are helping us tell this story of women’s service," Cushman said. "It has been a journey and an evolution.”
Cushman said the first women to officially serve in the military were Army nurses in 1901. Even then, the women were not given ranks. Their only title could be "nurse."
With World War I, the Navy need bodies to fill clerical roles in the U.S. that were emptied with men going to fight. While the military required applicants to be male U.S. citizens, the reserve force required only that applicants be citizens. Recruiting offices had women lined up around city blocks to join the cause.
“In some places women went in in the morning and were in the Navy in the afternoon,” Cushman said.
Women were contracted by the Army to work as telephone operators in France because men had not be trained to do the “women’s work” in the U.S. The operators often had to work near the front lines.
Women were regaled for their contributions after the war, and their service was key to women gaining the right to vote in 1920. But women were still told they could not serve.
Those telephone operators fought for decades for veterans benefits. The benefits were not granted until 1977, after many of the women had died.
Military auxiliary corps for women were established during World War II and women could serve during peacetime but the rules were restrictive. Women could comprise only 2% of the force; they could hold only certain ranks, couldn't command men and didn’t receive the same benefits. Their civilian husbands did not have commissary or hospital privileges, Cushman said.
Women also dealt with societal whispers that only immoral women wanted to work like men or that menopause would prevent them from being good leaders.
All military positions and jobs are open to women now but that didn't occur until 2016. And they occurred, Cushman said, only after women proved they could fight, fly planes and command troops.
“It’s all about need,” Cushman said. “If they need you, they’re going to find a way to get you, and that’s the way it’s been with women and how we’ve progressed in the military. … And women moved forward. Sometimes a baby step at a time. But women just wanted to serve; they wanted to make a difference.”
Cammermeyer joined the Army nurse corps in 1961 as a way to pay back a country that had done much for her family.
Cammermeyer was born in German-occupied Norway in 1942, and her parents worked as Norwegian resistance fighters against the Nazis. America helped liberate her country and then allowed her family to emigrate there in 1951 and begin again.
Cammermeyer served in Vietnam and married a fellow military officer, but had to leave the service when she got pregnant. She joined the reserve in 1972, which allowed her to serve and be a mother. Cammermeyer divorced in 1980.
Cammermeyer realized that she was gay as she worked her way swiftly through the ranks and was in the National Guard by the end of the 1980s. She knew the military was squeamish about homosexuality, but didn't know the regulations. All she knew was that she had a stellar record and had her eye on becoming a general.
In 1989, Colonel Cammermeyer was being interviewed for a top-security clearance when she was asked a question about homosexuality. She answered that she was a lesbian.
The rationale against gays in the military is that they couldn’t do their jobs. That didn’t apply to her.
“I had served for 25 years. I had been decorated, I had served in Vietnam, I was chief nurse, I was just about to finish my Ph.D, so all of the rhetoric being used just did not fit,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Washington.
Cammermeyer received word that she would be discharged. She was demoralized. She said she couldn't even look at her uniform.
She was discharged in 1992. She filed a lawsuit, and a two years later a judge ruled that her discharge was unconstitutional. Cammermeyer was reinstated, but the military passed its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which allowed gay people to serve as long as they didn't acknowledge their orientation.
Cammermeyer said the judge told her to follow the policy but she was on a lecture circuit and selling her book, "Serving in Silence," which detailed her life. The book was made into a television movie in which Glenn Close won her first Emmy for her portrayal of Cammermeyer.
Cammermeyer thought it was ridiculous. She fought the military's ban, even after she retired in 1997.
When the law was appealed in 2010, Cammermeyer was invited to the White House for a celebratory ceremony and she asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. She cried.
Women had fought the rules that banned women from serving because of marriage and pregnancy, and Cammermeyer felt it was her time. Cammermeyer could have retired and stayed out of the spotlight, she said. Her years in the military, ironically, taught her to fight.
“I went back in to prove a point – that I believed in the system," she said, "that everyone should be entitled to serve with dignity and respect.”