American Legion to Female WWII Vet: Yes, You’re a Member
A Vermont World War II veteran was granted membership to the American Legion earlier this summer—just days before she died at the age of 91. The group's national commander, who has worked to raise the position of women within the organization, says he made the effort a personal mission.
Timing was everything in the case of Gladys “Bunny” Strong.
The Vermont native, who served with the Marine Corps during World War II, found out in June that she was becoming a member of the American Legion. She had served in the Legion’s auxiliary unit, set aside for supporters of the organization, for seven decades. However, Strong never applied for full membership because she thought her time as a a cook at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune didn’t qualify her for membership.
But American Legion National Commander Michael Helm disagreed with the belief that Strong shouldn’t be a full member of the organization, and back in June, he took steps to right the issue during a visit to the state.
“During our conversation, it came about that she is a Marine and eligible for membership in The American Legion, but she was not allowed to become a member,” Helm said of his first meeting with Strong. “That’s when I told her that she would be a member of the organization. She told me that she wouldn’t be, but it turns out this commander was right.”
The move came just in time. On July 7, just days after nearby Post 36 gave Strong membership into the organization, she died at the age of 91. Shortly after Strong’s funeral, Helm reflected on what the move meant for both Strong and the organization as a whole.
“I wanted people to see that a female veteran was being recognized for the great things that they do,” Helm said to VT Digger.
The situation reflects a lingering cultural issue that some members of the American Legion remember vividly. Linda Perham, who administers the Legion’s Department of Vermont, told VT Digger that when she went to her first state convention, an auxiliary member—who herself served as a nurse in World War I—told her she was making the wrong move.
“She said to me, ‘You need to know your place,’ which meant the auxiliary room,” Perham said.
Moving Past Biases
But moves to recognize veterans such as Strong reflect an effort to get past these organizational biases. While women have been able to join the American Legion since 1919 and there are some all-female chapters like Missouri’s Post 404, according to The Washington Post, perception issues have lingered and the problem was often one highlighted in individual chapters, as in Strong’s case.
“The club itself didn’t welcome women,” Strong’s daughter, Jean, said in an interview with the American Legion. “They couldn’t go in the bar or attend official meetings. It was that way for a long time. I remember my mother saying she didn’t want to take away from my father’s service. He served in Germany and she didn’t. She felt like her service as a cook in the Marines didn’t hold the same weight. She felt like she didn’t really serve.”
Members of Post 36 today, however, were inspired by Strong’s story and pushed to make it happen.
Helm noted that the issue is an organizational goal—within all parts of the Legion.
“We need to make sure that we are reaching out to all of our women veterans and making them feel welcome,” he said.