During the Vietnam War, women served on active duty doing a variety of jobs. Early in 1963, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) launched Operation Nightingale, an intensive effort to recruit nurses to serve in Vietnam. Most nurses who volunteered to serve in Vietnam came from predominantly working or middle class families with histories of military service. The majority of these women were white Catholics and Protestants. Because the need for medical aid was great, many nurses underwent a concentrated four-month training program before being deployed to Vietnam in the ANC. Due to the shortage of staff, nurses usually worked twelve-hour shifts, six days per week and often suffered from exhaustion. First Lieutenant Sharon Lane was the only female military nurse to be killed by enemy gunfire during the war on June 8, 1969.
At the start of the Vietnam War, it was commonly thought that American women had no place in the military. Their traditional place had been in the domestic sphere, but with the war came opportunity for the expansion of gender roles. In Vietnam, women held a variety of jobs which included operating complex data processing equipment and serving as stenographers. Although a small number of women were assigned to combat zones, they were never allowed directly in the field of battle. The women who served in the military were solely volunteers. They faced a plethora of challenges, one of which was the relatively small number of female soldiers. Living in a male-dominated environment created tensions between the sexes. While this high male to female ratio was often uncomfortable for women, many men reported that having women in the field with them boosted their morale. Although this was not the women’s purpose, it was one positive result of their service. By 1973, approximately 7,500 women had served in Vietnam in the Southeast Asian theater. In that same year, the military lifted the prohibition on women entering the armed forces.
American women serving in Vietnam were subject to societal stereotypes. Many Americans either considered female in Vietnam mannish for living under the army discipline, or judged them to be women of questionable moral character who enlisted for the sole purpose of seducing men. To address this problem, the ANC released advertisements portraying women in the ANC as “proper, professional and well protected.” This effort to highlight the positive aspects of a nursing career reflected the ideas of second-wave feminism that occurred during the 1960s-1970s in the United States. Although female military nurses lived in a heavily male environment, very few cases of sexual harassment were ever reported. In 2008, by contrast, approximately one-third of women in the military felt that they had been sexually harassed compared with one-third of men.
Though relatively little official data exists about female Vietnam War veterans, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation estimates that approximately 11,000 military women were stationed in Vietnam during the conflict. Nearly all of them were volunteers, and 90 percent served as military nurses, though women also worked as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and other positions in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines and the Army Medical Specialist Corps. In addition to women in the armed forces, an unknown number of civilian women served in Vietnam on behalf of the Red Cross, United Service Organizations (USO), Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian organizations, or as foreign correspondents for various news organizations.
Unlike the American women who went to Vietnam, Vietnamese women fought in the combat zone as well as provided manual labor to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail open; they also worked in the rice fields to provide food for their families and the war effort. Women were enlisted in both the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the VietCong guerrilla force in South Vietnam.
Nguyen Thi Dinh was an example of a woman who had fought most of her adult life against foreign forces in her country. She was a member of the Vietminh fighting against the French and was imprisoned in the 1940s but on her release continued to fight and led a revolt in 1945 in Ben Tre and also in 1960 against Diems government. In the mid 1960s, she became a deputy commander of the Viet Cong, the highest ranking combat position held by a woman during the war.
Nguyen Thi Duc Hoan, who would later go on to be an actress-director, also joined the fight at a young age and would later become a guerrilla fighter against the Americans, at the time her own daughter was training in the militia.