Military Women’s Long, Ongoing March to Equality

Military women have marched toward increased rights throughout United States history. From the American Revolution, when they operated primarily as nurses, to the Iraq War, when they served covertly on the frontlines in Team Lioness, women have finally been acknowledged for the service they provide to the United States. As of January 2013, they are legally recognized as ground combat fighters.


Still, women and men alike struggle with the reality of rape in the military. Twenty percent of women and one percent of men have been sexually assaulted during a term of service. After The Invisible War shined a light on the issue, the power to prosecute sexual assault moved up the chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has also credited the documentary with shaping her approach to the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013, announced May 16, which enables victims of sexual assault in the military to file their case with a JAG prosecutor instead of their commanding officers.

In honor of Memorial Day, watch Rebel (airing May 24 on PBS’s Voces) to learn more about one neglected female figure who shaped the United States military, Loreta Velazquez, Confederate soldier and Union spy. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of female soldiers’ long path to the present:

  • During the American Revolution, in 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates told Gen. George Washington that, “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Washington beseeched Congress, which approved one nurse for every ten patients. Women also served as water bearers, cooks, laundresses, and saboteurs.
  • During the Civil War, women soldiers on both sides disguised themselves as men in order to serve. In 1866, Dr. Mary Walker received the Medal of Honor. She is the only female to have been awarded this highest honor.
  • In World War I, 21,480 Army nurses serve in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. Eighteen African-American Army nurses serve stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. More than 400 military nurses die in the line of duty. The majority died from the “Spanish Flu.”
  • The Army establishes the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. They were the first women besides nurses to “serve within the ranks of the United States Army.” More than 150,000 women served as WACs during the war. In 1942, Nancy Harkness Love organized 25 women pilots into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). The WAFS flew planes from the factory to military bases.
  • WACs in the Vietnam War supported the troops mainly in administrative military occupational specialties (MOSs). One WAC detachment was assigned to Headquarters, first at Ton Son Nhut Airbase, then at Long Binh. “While engineers readied new barracks at Long Binh, the women lived in a building typical of the tropics, with openings between outer wallboards and no windows,” according to Army.mil. “Red dust covered their rooms during the dry season, and rain soaked them during the wet season.”
  • By the end of 2004, 19 servicewomen were killed during the Iraq War. Team Lioness, featured in the documentary Lioness, was organized to search and soothe Muslim women in accordance with cultural customs. “These women in Ramadi would become the first to engage in offensive ground combat operations in this country’s history,” said Lory Manning, Director of Women in the Military Project, in an interview for Lioness. Continue reading

From Victim to Survivor: Women and Girls Lead Films Share Stories of Resiliency

April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S. and while Women and Girls Lead campaign partners were doing their part to advocate for survivors, our main efforts went to raising public awareness through film. We started the month with the highly anticipated two-part series premiere of Kind Hearted Woman, a documentary by David Sutherland. We’ve also been preparing for the upcoming May 13th broadcast of the Academy Award nominated documentary The Invisible War by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. These two films in particular show the powerful potential for storytelling to support healing.

KHW_WAGL_infographicAn act of violence can last only minutes, but the effects on a survivor can linger for a lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, survivors of sexual assault are 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide. Multiply that times the 18 percent of women and girls who experience sexual assault, and the U.S. has a startling health epidemic on its hands. While awareness about prevention and punishment has steadily increased, Kind Hearted Woman and The Invisible War paint a rarely seen picture of what it takes to heal from the long-term effects of sexual violence.

In Kind Hearted Woman, we met Robin Poor Bear, a charismatic Oglala Sioux woman and mother of two. Robin is in a battle with sobriety after years of sexual abuse drove her to alcohol abuse. Robin’s story is not unique – alcohol abuse is 13 times more likely for survivors of gender-based violence. In the five-hour series, which was filmed over three years, we watch Robin heal before our eyes as her voice grows more self-assured, the bonds with her children deepen, and she remains steadfastly sober. “The more I tell my story, the stronger it’s gonna make me,” Robin declares. Watch Kind Hearted Woman online.

Viewers who tuned in to the Kind Hearted Woman broadcast on Independent Lens and FRONTLINE April 1st and 2nd responded to Robin’s story with an outpouring of compassion and support. Some even asked if there was a way they could contribute financially. As a result, the filmmakers established a fund where people can send donations to Robin and her family to use throughout their healing process. Learn more about the Robin Poor Bear Fund.

Kind Hearted Woman is also being used to train healthcare professionals in treating and responding to the harmful effects of violence. The Man Up Campaign and the American Indian Community House hosted a screening at Mount Sinai Hospital to facilitate a discussion on treating and responding to the harmful effects of violence. Throughout the year, Man Up partners with Native American communities to train and equip male advocates in fighting the high rates of gender-based violence on reservations.

During the May 13th broadcast of The Invisible War, viewers will meet U.S. service women and men who are living with the effects of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a term developed in response to the widespread problem of rape in the military. MST is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by severe anxiety, stress, or fear. On the whole, survivors of sexual assault are six times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Amy Herdy says in her interview for The Invisible War, “I have never seen trauma like I have seen from veterans who have suffered Military Sexual Trauma.”

When several of the survivors come together to file a lawsuit regarding their sexual assault cases, a powerful shift occured. They find strength in their common stories. “I’m not alone,” survivor Kori Coica repeats in the film, “I’m not alone.” The film’s Executive Producer Regina Kulik Scully hopes to recreate this transformative effect in the newly established Artemis Rising Invisible War Recovery Program. The program, which welcomed its first group of veterans in February 2013, offers specialized, non-pharmaceutical treatment for survivors of MST.

In addition to the filmmaker’s efforts, our partner RAINN is working closely with the Department of Defense to offer a Safe Helpline to members of the military. The hotline makes available trained, impartial advocates who can counsel service women and men on what to do if they experience, witness, or feel at risk of sexual assault. Learn how to contact the Safe Helpline.

Also check out one of RAINN’s public service announcements, which is available to Women and Girls Lead partners and stations to use in support of the Kind Hearted Woman and The Invisible War broadcasts:

Do your part to support survivors by listening to their stories. Tune in to The Invisible War Monday, May 13th on Independent Lens (check local listings) and follow Women and Girls Lead on Facebook for sharable infographics and videos.

ITVS Partners with Geena Davis to Confront the Effects of Media on Children

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and ITVS have partnered together to produce an educational program, which includes five short videos produced for kids titled Guess Who?, to be featured by the Women and Girls Lead campaign.

Watch Guess Who?: The Mayor and The Judge on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

It is time to take a hard look at the message contemporary media is sending to children and young adults. Guess Who? teaches children ages 6 to 9 to challenge gender stereotypes through the use of video and educational curriculum.

“Media images are a powerful force in shaping our perceptions of men and women. The stark gender inequality in media aimed at little children is significant, as television and movies wield enormous influence on them as they develop a sense of their role in the world. And because young kids tend to watch the same TV shows and movies repeatedly, negative stereotypes get imprinted again and again,” said Geena Davis, Academy® Award-winning actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Student producers at the University of Southern California, Boston University, Columbia College, Lipscomb University, and Webster University worked with the Institute to create the shorts, which will air on public television stations nationwide and are also featured online by PBS’ Emmy Award Winning series, Independent Lens.

On April 19th, Davis will be giving the keynote address to open the 7th annual West Hollywood’s Women’s Leadership Conference: Unlimited Opportunities – Knowledge. Power. Community. The conference includes a special screening of the Oscar nominated film, The Invisible War, which will be preceded by the Guess Who? short, “The Soldier,” produced by USC. The event includes a panel discussion led by PBS SoCal’s Maria Hall Brown and features filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, along with subject Alison Gil.

Women Soldiers Get Equal Footing: Two ITVS Filmmakers React

By Rebecca Huval

Female soldiers are no strangers to the frontlines, but the U.S. Army has just made it legal for them to serve in combat positions. Last month, the Pentagon repealed a 1994 law that barred women from infantry, armor, and artillery roles. But for decades, female soldiers have worked in the line of fire as medics, military photographers, and intelligence officers attached to combat troops. They have lost limbs and more than 100 have died in Iraq.

Two recent ITVS-funded documentaries show the harsh realities of female soldiers: Lioness and 2013 Oscar-nominee The Invisible War. Lioness spotlights women on the frontlines through a fearless team of female soldiers in Iraq — Team Lioness. During patrols, they calmed women and children in distress and ensured the cultural appropriateness of soldiers’ body searches.

In response to the lifting of the ban, Lioness directors Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan wrote via email: “It’s about time. Bringing policy in line with the reality of what servicewomen have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is key to achieving gender equity in the military…This in turn paves the way for women to crack the brass ceiling. Who knows? At some future date, when the Joint Chiefs sit down to advise the White House, one of them could be a woman.”

The Invisible War shows a different kind of fallout female soldiers have endured: rape in the military. More than 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted, according to the documentary. The film has already changed national policy. After watching The Invisible War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta transferred the power to prosecute sexual assault from the level of unit commander to colonel. Continue reading

Celebrate Human Rights Day with Five ITVS Films

By Rebecca Huval

Which holidays are you celebrating this December: Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve? Add another to the list because today is Human Rights Day. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN now honors it annually. This year’s theme is the right to speak up in public life and politics.

Still from The Day My God Died

Celebrate Human Rights Day by catching up on these excellent ITVS-funded documentaries about human rights: Continue reading

Women and Girls Lead Takes on Violence in 16 Days

From November 25 to December 10, Women and Girls Lead joins its partners in 16 Days of Action to eliminate gender-based violence. The 2012 global campaign focuses on the effects of militarism on women and girls.

Violence against women and girls is a global crisis that cuts across all countries, classes and cultures, touching the lives of women and girls in every community. According to the United Nations, approximately one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Violence prevention is a central issue in the Women and Girls Lead campaign and many of our partners. Each year, we join efforts in a 16-day, all-out activism blitz to put gender-based violence into the public spotlight.

The 16 Days of Action to eliminate violence against women kicks off on November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence, and ends on December 10th, Human Rights Day. More than four thousand organizations from 172 countries have participated in the campaign since it launched at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers in 1991. Women and Girls Lead is one of them, offering films that amplify the stories of survivors and educate the public about the factors that contribute to violence. Continue reading