Tonight's Foundry Series event, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, features DeAnne Blanton, archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. After the lecture, DeAnne Blanton will participate in a panel discussion with Claire Gastanaga, ACLU of Virginia; Dr. Leisa Meyer, Diversity Richmond; and Dr. Francoise Bonnell, Director of the Army Women's Museum. We were fortunate enough to get to ask several questions of DeAnne and Leisa before tonight's event. DeAnne Blanton's answers are marked with DB and Leisa Meyer's are marked as LM.
1. How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
DB: I first became interested in women soldiers in the Civil War in the early 1990s, when I stumbled upon a post-war War Department record at the National Archives which discussed several women who had passed as men and served in the Union Army. I was fascinated, and immediately began to look for more information. I couldn't find any books on the subject, so I started researching. And it snowballed.
LM: I started working on the topic of women in the military because I had been a member of the Air Force – as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy - and was interrogated as part of an investigation into “homosexuality” at the Academy, accused of being a lesbian (which I am, by the way) and left with a General Discharge, upgraded to Honorable under Bill Clinton in 1996 when he granted amnesty to all discharges other than honorable that were issued on the basis of the individual’s “sexual orientation.” A move he made because of his inability to eliminate the military prohibition against “homosexuals” serving. At this point I have moved from focusing on gender, women, sexuality and the military to recovering the histories of LGBTQ+ peoples and communities in the south. The W&M LGBTIQ Research Project: Documenting the LGBTIQ Past in Virginia, the student-based research project I began and advise, works with Diversity Richmond in a community partnership with the end goal of a “living history” digital exhibit that will be composed of oral histories, archival materials, maps and timelines that sketch out the contours of Richmond’s LGBTQ+ history during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
2. How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
LM: While many folks think that “marriage equality” means all is done there are no more issues for LGBTQ+ people the reality is that is absolutely wrong. There is an ongoing and visible backlash against “marriage equality” and we still have a number of states (I think we are at 18 now) that do not prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people as part of their anti-discrimination language. Virginia happens to be one of those states. So still a great deal left to do to gain at least legal equity and protection for LGBTQ+ people. .
3. What was the most significant or surprising find during your research/production?
DB: I think the most surprising thing I discovered was that, during the War and in the post-year years, it was common knowledge that women had served. Veterans wrote about the women among them. But when the veterans died, the knowledge of women soldiers died with them. Historians didn't deem them worth remembering. I view my work as being a part of the larger movement of discovering and writing women's history.
LM: In my first book the fact that the very explicit courts martial that were carried out against women in the Women’s Army Corps during WWII on the grounds that they were “homosexual” were juxtaposed to the general approach in relation to lesbians by Col. Oveta Culp Hobby (the head of the WAC) which was to downplay their existence, do everything she could not to have a scandal – including not wanting to have them dismissed for being “homosexual” – instead she kept a list of names of women who had been ‘brought to her attention” as “possible” homosexuals and asked their commanders to find ways to quietly eliminate them from the service. for women serving in the WAC during WWII that could be for anything from smoking or drinking in public to having a man in your room and the door shut to any other “behavior” bringing “disgrace” to the uniform – there were a great deal of strictures on what military women could and could not do during the war. In terms of the work I am doing now on Richmond and broader VA’s LGBTQ+ history – the surprise was finding there was a vibrant and activist and visible history during the 1970s all over Virginia – from Roanoke to Richmond and that Richmond’s LGBTQ+ communities were especially visible. I had not expected to find much of anything in relation to Richmond or Virginia more broadly – certainly not all that we have found to this point.
4. Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish or had to cut out?
LM: No – all went into the first book on the Women’s Army Corps – and I haven’t cut anything out of any thing else I’ve published since.
5. Are there any social media accounts that you follow, especially that relate to your work?
DM: I confess that I don't do much on social media professionally. I spend my work day immersed in 19th century history, so in my free time I tend to shy away from history.
LM: Probably outhistory.org – which is an LGBTQ+ wiki history “page” that has fabulous content. Also, Outwire.com (the Norfolk-based online LGBTQ newsletter). There are probably lots of others and I’m just too tired to recall them at the moment.