Broadcaster Cokie Roberts Speaks at Women's Memorial
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 25, 1999 ABC television correspondent Cokie Roberts kept her audience laughing March 16 with a barrage of anecdotes about women during a "brown bag lunch" at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.
Roberts, a national news show host and commentator, took her nearly all female audience on a personal and political journey through the diverse roles women have played in American history.
One story involved her mother, former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs, now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. The World War II service of the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) was largely ignored, she said, until her mother "spearheaded the effort in Congress in 1977 to pay these pilots their due." Neither allowed to be military pilots nor to fly in combat, the quasi-military WASPs ironically taught men to fly and routinely flew transoceanic deliveries of bombers and other aircraft.
Television debates about women in the military have increased in the last couple of years, Roberts said. "Every time you have a conversation like that, the following week you get a lot of mail," she said. "After one of those sessions, I got a letter that I've tacked to the wall above my desk in my office. It's a facsimile copy of the discharge paper of one 'Frank Deming' from the Union Army in the Civil War.
"It was sent to me by a woman currently serving in the military," she said. "It says Frank Deming had been in the Union Army for a couple of years. He never had any days off and had served well." Deming was discharged because of sex, Roberts remarked. "He" was a she.
"This was a smart woman's way of letting me know that women have been fighting in all of our wars since the revolution," she said. "Of course, you know that very well here, but lots of Americans don't know that.
"I suppose people still learn in school about 'Molly Pitcher' at the Battle of Monmouth, but that's about it," said Roberts. Verification of women's wartime contributions, she noted, "comes through mundane methods of researching pension documents and learning they received military retirement benefits."
In her book, Roberts wrote that since the Revolutionary War, women have been carrying the standards into battle, taking up the weapons of the fallen, braving the bullets to care for the wounded and dying, boldly crossing enemy lines as couriers and scouts, and daringly tricking ciphers and codes out of Redcoat and Rebel, Vichy leader and Viet Cong.
"In the Revolutionary War, women risked their lives riding horses over many miles for several days, crossing rivers in the night, sneaking through enemy territory, swallowing rather than surrendering messages, all getting word to the American troops of British plans of attack," Roberts stated in her book.
The audience roared with laughter when she remarked: "We were particularly good as spies. Spying was basically women's work. The stories of the spies are fabulous. Women riding horseback through the night, through enemy lines. I have this mental picture of their hair flying in the wind."
During the Civil War, some women disguised themselves and fought as men, others went to war as "regimental mascots" and pulled duty as pickets, scouts and raiders, she said. "Several won decorations for their service, others received commissions in the regular Army," Roberts noted.
"There was nothing set up in the Civil War by way of hospitals or any kind of delivery system for packages to soldiers," she said. "Women put that all in place throughout the war. It was in the role of nurses that the military began eventually to admit women officially into the ranks.
"As in all fields, we've come a long way and have a long way to go," Roberts said after her speech. "In terms of women in combat, I completely take my cue from the women who serve in the military. They seem to be of the impression that until women are fully integrated into combat, they will not fully get ahead. If that's the case, then I'm with them."