A nurse ministering to a wounded American soldier. The back side of the “Hello, David” stone in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Learning Center. [Photos: David Kramer, April, 2020]
The Timeline at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park is a unique historical repository. The four foot long pieces begin at 300 B.C. — depicting the first migrations from China to what is now Vietnam — and end with the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973.
A marker at the entrance to the memorial explains the Timeline offers “a snapshot, not a complete history of the Vietnam Era.” As seen at end, we’ve taken a closer looks at the snapshot by tracing the trajectory of the Cambodian and Laotian civil wars, the Eisenhower presidency, the civil rights movement and sports in the 1960’s.
These investigations led to an unsurprising observation. Indicative of the era it represents, the Timeline — literally a concrete version of the public sphere — is dominated by men. The soldiers are men. The chief leaders are men: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. Ho Chi Mihn, Khruschev and Mao. The anti-war and civil rights activists are mostly men. The writers, filmmakers, musicians, scientists and philosophers are mostly men.
Those killed in action were men.
Until 1970, all the generals were men.
To learn more about the design of the Timeline and the male dominance inscribed on its pieces, I spoke with Dr. Barry R. Culhane, author of the Timeline and first President and Chairman of the Board of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Inc.
Barry said without doubt the Time is male dominated. Just look at the names of all the generals and world leaders. Look at all the body counts. At one point, I asked Barry to recall how many women athletes are on the Timeline. He guessed one; there are three.
As the project progressed and Barry talked with other about the male dominance issue, he realized it was a problem. The Memorial needed more women’s voices. The female nurses who both saved lives and gave their own needed recognition.
Barry concluded there is no one or right way to make a Timeline. His approach was to read as much about the war and its contexts and talk to as many veterans as he could. If the Timeline resonates, Barry hopes walkers can imagine how it felt to be both inside and outside the war and its times. In the end, a memorial is what its creators want to be remembered.
I agree with Barry that the Timeline — that snapshot — should capture the lived experience of those who fought in the war and those impacted, whether military or civilian. At the same time, we talked about possible alternative timelines: the Timeline amended or “rewritten.”
An alternative timeline could present the era through a more XX lens. In this timeline, more pieces would be dedicated to women activists, cultural figures and the women’s rights movement. Instead of reading that Ernest Hemingway killed himself on July 2, 1961, we would read the inscription that Sylvia Plath killed herself on February 11, 1963. While we would know that male Buddhist monks doused themselves with gasoline, lighting themselves in protest, we would also learn that in May 1967, a Buddhist woman, Nhat Chi Mai, immolated herself in Saigon, South Vietnam.
Barry and I joked all the pronouns and names could be rewritten in gender neutral terms: they/them/theirs or instead of Richard Nixon just R. Nixon, instead of Jane Fonda just J. Fonda. Maybe Jack Kennedy could be Mr. Jaqueline Kennedy.
Ultimately, if I had the opportunity to begin the timeline anew, I would leave the pieces as they are. The stated mission of the Timeline is to allow citizens of the future to help understand this tumultuous time in our history. Those citizens of the future — just as we do — will bring their own lens (if not pronouns) through which to view the Timeline. If the 1950s, 60s and early 70s — the decades on which the Timeline focuses — were ones of male dominance in the public sphere — as well as resistance to that dominance — then that history should be told.
As Barry says, the Learning Center and Garden of Reflection contains voices of women from the Vietnam war era.
One of the stone markers in the Garden of Reflection welcomes both brother and sister veterans.
As seen in the featured photo above, the Hello, David stone in the Learning Center is dedicated to the 6,250 female nurses who served in Vietnam. Eight nurses died in Vietnam; one was killed in action.
The TO HEAL is inscribed with a quote from Laura Palmer’s Shrapnel in the Heart (1987).
While pieces dedicated to women may be conspicuous in their relative absence, the pieces provide context for understanding the Timeline and the era as a whole.
The feminist or women’s rights movement first appears in a 1970 piece mentioning four icons: Betty Friedan, Kate Millet (author of Sexual Politics, 1970), Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.
August 1970 the national women’s strike and the 50th anniversary of the 19th amendment
Bella Savitzky Abzug (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998), nicknamed “Battling Bella”, was an American lawyer, U.S. Representative, social activist and a leader of the Women’s Movement. In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
The Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which effectively gave American women the right to vote. Sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), about 50,000 women gathered for the protest in New York City and even more throughout the country.
Abortion, divorce and lesbian rights
Seven years later after the first legalization of abortion in Colorado, in 1973, the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, ruled the Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s right to abortion. Since the marketing of the birth control pill in 1960, women increasingly gained reproductive control, a factor in the Pope’s 1968 condemnation of all birth control.
On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — the first big uprising of LGBT people — on June 27, 1970 the Christopher Street Liberation Day in New York and the Christopher Street West Association in Los Angeles marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first Gay Pride Parades in United States history.
Women politicians: Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Shirley Chisholm
Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (Hindi: [ˈɪndɪraː ˈɡaːndʱiː] ( née Nehru; 19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984 when she was assassinated), an Indian politician and a central figure of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi was the first and, to date, the only female Prime Minister of India.
Golda Meir (born Golda Mabovitch; May 3, 1898 – December 8, 1978), teacher, kibbutznik, stateswoman, politician and the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. Meir was the world’s fourth and Israel’s first and only woman to hold the office.
The first black woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, Shirley Chisholm (née St. Hill; November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) are Congresswoman Bella Abzug are the only American women politicians on the Timeline.
Women antiwar activists: Yoko Ono
As the Vietnam War raged in 1969, John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono held two week-long Bed-Ins for Peace, one at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam and one at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, each of which were intended to be nonviolent protests against wars, and experimental tests of new ways to promote peace. (Wikipedia)
Women antiwar activists: Joan Baez, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda
Fonda’s trip led some to disparagingly call her “Hanoi Jane.” In 2011, Fonda said she was right to go to Vietnam, but “There is one thing that happened while in North Vietnam that I will regret to my dying day — I allowed myself to be photographed on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.”
As seen in Remembering April 4th, 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park, on November 9th, 2016, political activist and author Angela Davis addressed a crowd of over 1,200 people during an event titled “An Evening of Empowerment” at East High School in Rochester, NY.
Video from local photographer Erica Jae
Antiwar and civil rights activist: Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King, November 27, 1965, Washington, D.C. (dc1968project.com) From Remembering April 4th, 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park
Antiwar journalist, Frances Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald became a journalist, initially writing for the New York Herald Tribune magazine and going to Vietnam in 1966. Her debut book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972), met with great acclaim and still considered one of the most notable books about the Vietnam War. Fire in the Lake won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the Bancroft Prize for history, and the U.S. National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs. The book cautioned that the United States did not understand the history and culture of Vietnam and it warned about American involvement there. (Wikipedia)
1971 Mary Hoff and POW/MIAs
Humanitarians Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt
Women athletes, see Sports and the ’60s’ at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park
Indicative of the era, five women are represented in their roles as wives: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Priscilla Presley and Linda Eastman
Jacquline Bouvier, Kennedy and Onassis. Her husband, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, died in her arms.
The first women mentioned is Mata Hari in 1917. Next is Billie Holiday in 1959.
Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), better known by the stage name Mata Hari (/ˈmɑːtə ˈhɑːri/), was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy for Germany during World War I and executed by firing squad in France. (Wikipedia)