I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
May 1, 2022: Heath Hardage Lee
Vietnam was the war of my childhood. We watched it on the CBS Evening News. I wore MIA and POW bracelets. In sixth grade, I read a POW autobiography. But I never heard anything about the League of Wives, a group of women whose military husbands were prisoners during the war.
Huge thanks to fellow Davidson College graduate Heath Hardage Lee for telling this story. Her narrative nonfiction book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took On the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, is now out in paperback, and Reese Witherspoon and her production company Hello Sunshine, in partnership with Sony 3000, have optioned the book for a feature film with Heath as executive producer and historical consultant!
During the course of the book, we meet many amazing women. Sybil Stockdale, the founder of the League of Wives, was born in 1924, an era when women had few rights. And, she was a Navy wife, schooled to stay home and stay quiet. Before her husband was shot down in the fall of 1965, she had “found her role as a mother and wife fulfilling.” Jane Denton was not only born in the twenties but also southern. When her husband was shot down in 1965, she was thirty-nine and the mother of seven. She “was determined to follow the U.S. government rules to the letter…terrified of deviating from protocol in any way.” These women, and Louise and Phyllis and Andrea and Helene and Kathleen and more, were led to believe they might endanger the lives of their husbands by speaking out.
To make matters worse, most of the wives needed their missing and imprisoned husbands’ signatures to cash the paychecks the military was writing. And because it was the early sixties, “[m]any could not buy or register a car, create and manage a mortgage, refinance, rent an apartment, or buy a house.” Not only were the women filled with worry for their husbands, but they had major practical problems at home. Sybil urged “the Navy to make the wives a priority, not an afterthought.”
These women played nice until they couldn’t stand it any longer. Then they flew to Washington, over and over again. They organized (with wine!) and, with the military’s help, wrote coded letters to their husbands. The end result was better treatment for the men while they were in prisons in Vietnam and better treatment for the women while they managed houses and children at home.
It’s a fascinating story. The details will amaze you–many of these women kept diaries. And Heath’s writing style is a pleasure to read.
What would later be called “mansplaining” was almost always how men in power communicated with women. It would not even have been remarked upon or noticed.
The truth was, when confronted with the Vietnam POW/MIA scenario and the women the men had left behind, neither Whiz Kids nor Wise Men knew what the hell to do.
This next excerpt begins with President Nixon’s words during a press conference.
“I have the very great honor to present in this room today five of the most courageous women I have had the privilege to meet in my life.” Sybil stood next to him, nodding in approval, dressed again in her favorite bright-pink wool suit. There was no doubt in her mind that she had gotten her money’s worth out of that outfit.
I had no idea that the POW/MIA bracelet fund drive was started in 1969 by two college students, who sold more than five million bracelets and raised tens of thousands of dollars for POW/MIA awareness-building programs. While you wait for the movie, read the book!
In addition to being a historian, Heath is a biographer and a curator. Her first book, Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, was published in 2014. In 2017, Heath was the Robert J. Dole Curatorial Fellow, and her exhibition entitled The League of Wives: Vietnam POW MIA Advocates & Allies about Vietnam POW MIA wives traveled to museum venues all over the United States. She is currently at work on a biography of Pat Nixon that is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2024.
Come back on MAY 1st to read how HEATH HARDAGE LEE spends her days.