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Forgotten Women: Bombs, Bombshells and Barbed Wire

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For women on the front lines of war, the glass ceiling is lined with barbed wire.

A few weeks ago, two female soldiers filed a suit against the Army and the Department of Defense "to end policies prohibiting women from serving in a combat role," according to the LA Times.

In WWII it was women journalists who were demanding to go to war, to report on it. "Women get bombed same as men," says Nicole Kidman as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn in the lush new HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn. Her offhand comment was borne out in inspiring and heartbreaking detail in the groundbreaking PBS series Women, War and Peace last fall.

Women like Gellhorn, Ruth Cowan and Dickey Chappelle, profiled in Michele Midori Fillion's haunting documentary, No Job for a Woman, revealed the underbelly and collateral damage of war, but they had to fight hard to be able to tell the stories of war their way. Women didn't belong anywhere near war, they couldn't handle it, and what about makeup, hair and bathroom facilities -- these were the prevailing objections.

Pendulum in suspension

History repeats itself. Even the slightest change in the story renders everyone incapable of seeing the parallels. Women's suffrage, property ownership, job restrictions and benchmarks of inequality simply morph into new incarnations, such as the recent controversial Paycheck Fairness Act, the "War on Women" in the health care sphere and the aforementioned women in combat lawsuit.

There's always a pendulum swing, but in the sphere of women's equality it seems more like the second hand on a surreal grandfather clock. Women have been the dominant population since the mid 20th century (largely because of the loss of men in all the 20th century wars) even though recent proclamations suggest it is new. But the 52% (or thereabouts) is really the tipping point of women in the workplace. That threat, of job loss and competition, is what engenders the contentious us vs. them struggle -- actually a male paradigm in itself -- cruelly present in the story of Hemingway & Gellhorn.

Rule of 3

Despite being a majority for more than half a century, women haven't found their own voice yet. The attempt in the '70s ended up more as competition or emulation of the male paradigm -- it didn't fit, it wasn't comfortable, it receded. Perhaps that's why the pendulum is suspended -- it's waiting for us to find our authentic leadership voice.

Billie Jean King gave a speech some months ago where she said her aim for equality was never meant to be Women vs. Men. She wanted the general dynamic, in tennis and beyond, to be everyone together (she continues to work toward that goal). Maybe that was the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Now we're waiting for it to find its equilibrium.

We haven't been operating at half capacity; we've been at one-third. True equilibrium is a triumvirate: Him, Her, Us -- voices equal, individual, alongside each other. But also, a new sound when humming along simultaneously.

Repaving the Backward Path

To reach that goal, I think we have to repave the historical path. This is not revisionist history -- it is making room for the stories that were always there. We just couldn't hear them because the lower octaves were too loud.

Really hearing the fascinating stories of the three women profiled in No Job for a Woman helps to rebalance the historical record, so we're on surer footing going forward and can more quickly find our present voice.

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Black & white archival images from No Job for a Woman; Hemingway & Gellhorn with Nicole Kidman & Clive Owen courtesy HBO; Mint Theater's Love Goes to Press, with Rob Breckenridge & Heidi Armbruster, photo: Richard Termine.
Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's StyleGoesStrong.com.