The Vietnam War lasted nearly two decades, and during that time women negotiated a shifting terrain when it came to their role in the public sphere. Were they still homemakers and Sunday school teachers? Or were they allowed to wear miniskirts and take up about half the space in offices? They were wearing pants now of all things, and when the Army was trying to recruit women for nursing positions in Vietnam, they didn't quite know how to go about reaching out to them. They tried to craft this new empowered image of a nurse being both an officer and a woman, but that proved difficult.
For the first time ever, the military broadened the definition of a nurse's role to include career advancement, educational benefits, and equality, but they also stressed the importance of femininity as a key role in army nursing. "She might have been a progressive nurse, specialized, and treated equally, but she was still needed for her touch, smile, and reassuring beauty. She was still needed to restore a sense of domesticity to the troops," Kara Dixon Vuic, author of Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War, shared in her book.
It was hard recruiting nurses to ship out to the Mekong Delta, and so wartime posters made sure to present a specific kind of woman bandaging the heads of good ol' American boys. They were all young with perfectly hairsprayed hair, flattering uniforms, and airbrushed makeup, countering the stereotype that military women were 'mannish.' "Military leaders often expected women to appear conventionally feminine. General Westmoreland reportedly said that when soldiers came to hospitals, he wanted them to see nurses wearing white uniforms and lipstick, with their hair styled," Dixon Vuic shared in an interview with Bustle. They were still very much wanted for their feminine comfort, as well as their skills.
"While they pushed officer status and equal pay, at the same time, advertisements needed to project an image of respectability. Women who joined the military had long faced stereotypes and rumors about their sexuality, and so military leaders wanted to offer a positive image of nurses that would assure young women and their families that joining the military would be a positive move," Dixon Vuix says. While women were making strides towards equality, society still needed to see nursing gendered in feminine ways to justify them being in war zones and militaries. Makeup was that tool to convince an uneasy society that the battlefield was just another extension of the home.