The U.S. military began officially recruiting women during World War I to serve as nurses. By the time of Operation Desert Storm, female soldiers were doing nearly everything their male counterparts did except engage in ground combat. Still, the activities of women in uniform have remained controversial, and today there is even a dispute over how a female soldier should be depicted in stone.
To honor women veterans from West Virginia, the state decided in 1998 to erect a statue in the capital city of Charleston, dedicating more than $100,000 to the project. Sculptor Joseph Mullins, who created West Virginia's Veterans Memorial in 1987, was selected to design the new statue. West Virginia officials approved his vision of a working soldier, showing a muscular woman, wearing a casual uniform of pants and a T-shirt, with her hair tucked up under a baseball-style cap.
The sculptor is well on his way to finishing the final 2.5-meter-high memorial. But State Senator Anita Caldwell, vice chair of the Senate Military Committee, says she is not happy with the work in progress. She recently visited Mr. Mullin's studio accompanied by two women Marine veterans.
"Though that gentleman, Mr. Mullins, has done a superior work, [the statue] doesn't look like a woman," she says. "It looks like a very healthy young man in his twenties. The very fact that the legs are covered with the rolled up pants and the combat boots kept it from appearing feminine. Because there was no natural curve to the legs like most women."
It was not only the muscular look of the statue that bothered Senator Caldwell, but also the clothing depicted. "It was a pull-up T-shirt. It is simply too modern to represent all the wars, because women have only worn clothing of this nature since Vietnam," she says. "We are under the impression that since this is the first statue, it would be in a skirt and in an outfit that is more reminiscent of World War I or II or Korea."
Mr. Mullins believes that younger women in the military may disagree with Senator Caldwell, and the two women veterans' suggestions. "There seems to be two points of view. And I think it has caught up in the changing role of women in the society and in the military. Younger veterans seem to be more comfortable with the approach that I was taking. And that was showing this female military person in a fatigue, or a working uniform," he says.
The Governor-appointed committee that approved the original design also likes the artist's approach.
Committee member Julenne Dean served in the Vietnam War and is West Virginia's coordinator for women veterans affairs. "To me, the statue is perfect," she says.
Ms. Dean says the statue is still a work in progress, and maybe the artist will make some changes here and there. But she insists that changing the pants into a skirt is not a good idea. "If you do that, then you need to have five statues; one for each branch of the service, with the correct uniform, the insignia, and the designs of the different uniforms. There is one uniform that has endured the test of time for women in military, not just women but all military. That is what's called BBU; that's the field uniform. When you are in the field, you have on the pants, you have on a T-shirt."
Sculptor Joseph Mullins says he did not expect this controversy, although he is used to criticism. "I've been at this sculpture business for sometime, and I know that every time a new group of people comes in my studio to view a sculpture, they all come in with suggestions for change," he says. "I think in this case, I am doing a one-piece sculpture, which is going to represent all women in all occupations in military and cover a broad history period. So, I do not really expect to have much consensus on what it should look like."
Mr. Mullins suggests that his statue be judged on artistic merit, rather than on military specifications. "I do not think that when you hire an artist, at least a first rate artist and I hope I'm one, you do not simply hire their hands. You hire their heads as well. You hire their sort of philosophical point of view," he says. "If you simply want to have someone to execute your idea, then you need to go to a commercial artist, not a fine artist."
Joseph Mullins plans to complete his statue to honor West Virginia's women veterans, according to the original design, and hopes it will be appreciated by the majority of people. As an artist, he knows it is hard to please everybody. And while Senator Caldwell may not be pleased with results, she says the state will permit him to finish his work and pay him for it.