Remembering the League of Extraordinary Women

They waited.

As their husbands fought a debatable war, they waited.

The battle ended, they waited.

Recognition came, a bit too late, and they still waited.

During the long years of the Vietnam War, many American pilots were shot down in North Vietnam, and were taken as prisoners of war (POW) or were reported missing in action (MIA). Their wives sought information about their husbands from various government departments. Go home and leave the release negotiations to the government, they were told. They were often branded as ‘hysterical females’ and women who now ‘needed a shoulder to cry on.’

The wives of these brave soldiers began to be treated as second-class citizens.

As the war progressed, news about American soldiers being tortured and used for propaganda started to appear in the media. By the end of 1966, wives of many American POWs understood that they now needed action instead of the stoic government reassurance. wife of the commanding officer of the Screaming Eagles fighter squadron at the Coronado Navy base, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband Jim was being held captive behind enemy lines, realized that individual voices were falling on deaf ears and a collective demand to bring their husbands back was required. She and a few others formed the League of Wives to leverage their demand. Initially a ‘reluctant sorority’, the group soon emerged as a strong coalition to strategize, lobby, and publicize their goals. They were seen as warrior queens fighting for the release of their husbands from captivity. The League of Wives, from 1966 to 1973, campaigned hard for their objective. Their rise coincided with the emergence of the National Organization for Women and other similar groups. But the League of Wives never branded themselves as feminists. They brought out hidden talents their members never knew they had, like sending coded letters and spying on the enemy. They used their skills in their own way to serve the country.

The first 116 POWs returned home in February 1973. They were hosted to a royal dinner by President Richard Nixon which was described as the ‘gala to end all galas.’ He raised a toast to the gallant ‘first ladies of America.’

And then, having their long-absent husbands home, the wives settled back in domesticity. Their story soon faded from public memory. During the Vietnam War, and even months after it ended, these brave women lived with the hope that their husbands would return, forging extraordinary camaraderie to press Washington into bringing the men back home.

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