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Exhibit explores history of women in US military

Major Margaret Oglesby of the Army National Guard viewed items in the exhibit on the history of women in the American military on display aboard the USS Massachusetts in Fall River. Major Margaret Oglesby of the Army National Guard viewed items in the exhibit on the history of women in the American military on display aboard the USS Massachusetts in Fall River. (Tom Herde/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

FALL RIVER - Mementos of what life was once like for women serving in the military stared at Army National Guard Major Margaret Oglesby from the walls of the forward compartment of the second deck of the USS Massachusetts.

Behind a glass enclosure, a World War II-era poster beckoned women to join the Coast Guard so that men could join the real fight: "Release a man to fight at sea." Another wall displayed a picture of Plympton native Deborah Sampson, a Revolutionary War soldier, the first known American woman who had to impersonate a man in order to join combat. Across a narrow passageway, women's military uniforms from the 1940s hung from mannequins - knee-length skirts, coats with narrow waists, and black pumps.

The posters, the clothes, and other bits of history were part of "Women Protecting U.S.," a new permanent exhibit that offers a look into the role of women in the American military ov er the years. The exhibit was inaugurated this weekend during an annual conference dedicated to women who serve.

"This just shows that we've come light-years" in terms of how women are treatment in the military, said Oglesby, a probation officer in Springfield District Court who, in 2003, commanded a military police company in Afghanistan.

The exhibit, which is located in the former berthing compartment of the battleship, will open to the public in the summer. This weekend's preview coincided with International Women's Day yesterday, and featured speakers included Oglesby; Thomas G. Kelley, the state's secretary of Veterans' Services; and Lieutenant Mary Louise "Missy" Cummings, one of the country's first fighter pilots and now teaches at the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who spoke about the hardships of being a woman in the military.

"A Marine pilot said to me: 'If you're a fighter pilot, what does that make me?' " recalled Cummings, who flew an F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter jet in the 1990s. She said that at the time, some male pilots felt that her presence trivialized their elite role.

Cummings became a fighter pilot in 1988, when women had no combat role in the military and made up a very small proportion of active-duty personnel.

Now, more than 200,000 women are in active duty military service, constituting about 15 percent of the military. They serve in nearly every type of unit, although they are still banned from ground combat.

"It's getting better, but we still have a long way to go," Cummings said.

"Women Protecting U.S." displays 14 uniforms, 14 posters of World War I and II servicewomen accompanied by their short biographies, and a collection of photographs, articles, and oral stories of women who helped build ships in Massachusetts compiled by students of Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy.

Although many of the items highlight the condescending tone the military once took toward women who wanted to participate in the war effort, veterans who browsed through the displays yesterday were pleased with the exhibit.

"So many women served quietly and honestly, we should get these stories out," Oglesby said.

"We deserve it," said Specialist Judi Brown, commander of American Legion Post 40 in Plymouth.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Laurie Carlson, a textile artist from Arlington who became interested in the role of women in the military almost a decade ago, when she was invited to advise officers working at the Natick Soldier System Center about certain fabrics the Army was using.

"I came here to the ship to get an idea of how you deal with military men, because I had no background on that at all," she said of Battleship Massachusetts, a floating museum in Fall River. She noticed that the battleship had few mentions of women's role in the war effort.

Now there are 1,500 square feet on board dedicated exclusively to servicewomen. Carlson hopes that the exhibit will expand; she already has more items in her collection than she has space to display.

"Women now have a place in Massachusetts where they can come to discuss their lives and is dedicated to their service," she said.

Anna Badkhen can be reached at abadkhen@globe.com.

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