The history of Vietnam is filled with strong women who acted heroically or played heroic roles at times when the nation was in crisis. Some of these women who are greatly celebrated in Vietnam as heroes are sisters TrungTrac and TrungNhi. The two led a Vietnamese revolt against the Chinese in 39-42 C.E. These women feature heavily in Vietnamese history books where they are often hailed as the Hai Ba Trung (The Trung Sisters). Another great woman who is also revered greatly in Vietnamese history books is Madame Trieu (Ba Trieu) who also led a Vietnamese revolt against the Chinese in 248 C.E. After the victory of the Chinese in 242 C.E, Confucius ideas were adopted in the country. These ideals were used to establish bureaucratic and family systems that essentially demoted women to a subordinate position. The women were seen as inferior to man in almost everything. Women’s duties were mainly relegated to simple house chores such as cooking, taking of children and so on and this went on even into the 19th Century. In simple terms, the adoption of Confucius ideas due to the influence of the Chinese created a society structure that viewed a woman as subordinate to the man and in fact as an inferior being.
These views were enshrined in the Vietnamese society for the better part of the first Millennium. In fact, they would come to play great role in the wars Vietnam was involved in throughout this millennium. The nation was involved in a lot of wars and they particularly increased war in the course of the 19th Century. History shows that Vietnamese women were very active participants in these wars and were always ready to defend the nation. It appears that the cultural characteristics in the society particular the role of women in this society had something to do with the huge enthusiasm showed by them when it came to actively participating in the war. In this paper, I will argue that the enthusiasm and determination showed by Vietnamese women in participating in wars was driven by the realization and understanding that active participation in the wars would symbolize that they were capable of the same duties and activities as men including physical combat and should thus stop being treated as second class citizens or as a weaker gender and should gain the same status in the society as the man. This is from a personal interpretation of the Vietnamese society of the time which reveals that women wanted to change their position and status in this society.
The first thing I will discuss is the concept of Communism and its relationship with the involvement of Vietnamese women on wars. The 20th Century was characterized by the rise of many communist leaders in Vietnam who wanted to spread their communist ideas to the entire Vietnamese society. These leaders identified women as one of their strongest assets that could be used during wars. In fact, a lot of the 20th Century Communist leaders in Vietnam were able to appeal successfully to women as potential revolutionary class mainly because the customs and the laws in Vietnam treated women as inferior beings. The Vietnamese Nationalist Party, which was formed in 1927, admitted very many women who were united with the men in that both suffered great torture from the French colonialists. At this front, the women came across as equal human beings who had suffered the same way as men and could this participate in a revenge mission equally as both had a common objective. During this communist’s war with the French, the women took an active role in an attempt to show that they were capable of exhibiting the same prowess as men and should thus not be treated differently.
Two of the most renowned women leaders and fighters in this era were Nguyen ThiGiang and her sister Nguyen ThiBac, who inspired a lot of fellow women. In fact, my communist leaders used this to their advantage. The communist leaders realized that men were not sufficient to fight and win alone, and the input of women was important too. Therefore by passing the message that war was an activity that could revolutionize the role and status of the woman in the society, they were able to attract a lot of women in the active war society. The communists stated that under a government of communism, women would essentially have the same power and rights as men and gender based discrimination would be a thing of the past. According to Goldstein, images of Vietnamese women at the active battlefront were essentially a symbol of the entire society’s mobilization for a common cause.This can however not the real reason why women went to war. They did not do it as a sign of society’s mobilization for a common cause. They did get actively involved in the war and defend their country vigorously because of great love for their country. Their main motivation was the realization that the war had the ability to alter and shape the position and the status that had been ascribed to them in the society. If they showed extreme bravery and courage and led their countries to deliverance and freedom, then the men would open their eyes, see that women were not as weak as they had traditionally been thought to be and their status would thus be raised almost reaching the same heights as those of the man. Once again, this is a concept that is derivable from the timing of the women’s involvement in war as well as their alliance (that is, many aligned with the communist who promised equality under a communist government).
Therefore, the Vietnamese communist resistance wars against the French and later the Americans were characterized by huge female military presence. In fact, some historians estimate that over 60,000 of these women could be found in the regular forces of the nation while more than 1000,000 were in volunteer youth corps. An even greater number totaling to about 1 million could be found in militias as well as other local forces. According to Goldstein, the 1960’s saw a woman veteran of local uprisings appointed as a deputy commander in the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). In addition, women made up more than 40% of all regimental commanders. The women soldiers actually served in both mixed-gender as well as all female units. However, the mixed gender units were once again a depiction of the inferior role ascribed to women as the men in these women generally despised the women and saw them as inferior. However, as time went on, these women planned to show those who despised them that they were essentially capable of what men could do. This is perhaps the reason why initially, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces sometimes tended to direct women from these activities war units and into other areas of work that included espionage and transport. As time went on however, the women were able to prove that they were capable of more than just support activities.
In the war with the Americans, during the late 1960’s, there were a lot of Vietnamese women who were mobilized into the war efforts. These women performed both support tasks as well as active duties. As much as the Communist leaders wanted to involve the women in the war efforts by promising the revolution of their status in the society, there were still some who viewed them as inferior and therefore preferred if the women were involved in support duties rather than full combat duties. This is why many women could be found performing tasks related to medical, antiaircraft, bomb defusing, liaison, and transport tasks. To quote Goldstein, “It was general policy to discourage active combat for women.”. Women however actively served in local militias. In spite of the women being discouraged to be at the war front, many women are however recorded to have been actively involved in the shooting down of the American airplanes and then capturing pilots. In South Vietnam, the communist party also recruited a lot of women mainly for support rules roles and functions. Women were however full participants in active combat in the 1969 Tet Offensive. The role of women in active combat however slowly diminished as guerrilla warfare was slowly replaced by conventional war.
Regardless of whether they served in active combat or in support roles, the Vietnamese women were always ready to serve their country when called upon. This can once again be attributed to their great enthusiasm to exhibit their capabilities and show that what the Vietnamese men could do, the women could also do and the women should therefore stop being treated as second class citizens. As it has been shown, many women were willing to take part in active combat and were in fact restricted by the males most of the time who deemed them not to have enough prowess, energy and proper decision making abilities to be at the war front. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese women were always ready to show their strength and fight for their country hopefully for a better future that would grant them a high rank, position and status in this society which had traditionally shunned them and viewed them as inferior beings.
Feminine duty and motherhood ideals also supported women’s participation the war efforts of North Vietnam. The war showed an increased burden on the already filled basket to the woman’s work. As mentioned earlier, the role of women was mainly restricted to house chores and simple domestic duties. Women also played the role of child bearers and caregivers. Taking part in the war was an added duty to the already full roster of the woman. Although there were some who took an active part in combat, for example in the aircraft defense of the home communities, women were used primarily for the provision of labor. Examples of labor include assembling weapons, carrying weapons from one place to another, preparing food for the active combatants and so on. This is once again a depiction of how the Vietnamese women viewed women in the society. Some could not contemplate or imagine women taking part in the war because of the low value that they placed on them. On the woman’s part nevertheless, they realized the low status that they were accorded in the society, and this is perhaps why they participated in the war, especially the communist side so strongly. They thought that the war would be bring about a revolution in the society where many be after such a long time of being treated as second class citizens they would get the official recognition and status in the society.
It appears that the majority of the communist leaders on the north were in favor of equality, and perhaps this is what motivated so many women to take part and role in war. According to Frankum, “North Vietnamese women benefited from the communist system that provided for relative equality in responsibility and benefit”.
In fact, records show that there was more active participation of women from the north than the south. As mentioned earlier, the communist party leaders were able to appeal to the women as revolutionary mainly because of the traditional Vietnamese society that viewed the woman as an inferior being. From the onset, the communist North wanted to spread the idea of communism to the entire nation of Vietnam. They held the belief that communist ideas offered the best solutions to the country’s problems.
However, as it can be seen, one of the stronger aspects of communism is that it offered equality. For the North Vietnam’s women fighters, they did not, therefore, just engage or take an active role to show their bravery and show that they were capable of everything that the men did. They also wanted to see the success of communism and its spread all over Vietnam since they envisioned that it would change the status and the role of a woman in the Vietnamese society. The wars were viewed as a given opportunity to institute changes within the Vietnamese cultural traditions especially in relation to the treatment of women. Therefore, even those who did not take an active part in the war or who were not at the real war front, assumed support roles with great pride. As long as their actions and activities would somehow help in the propulsion of communism that would potentially alter the opportunities and the standing of a woman in the Vietnamese society, then there were no complaints.
Unfortunately, the South as well as the United States disfavored communism and wanted to curb its spread totally. This is why the United States sent troops to Vietnam, in the first place. In the southern part of the country, women were also fighters although their course was however different from those in the north who wanted or who were seeking to advance communism. The women however had the same vision in that they knew that their active participation in the war especially in active combat could perhaps make the men open their eyes and see that women were virtually capable of doing the same things that men and do and therefore treating women as inferior was unwarranted and uncalled for. In the south, women went as far as forming paramilitary organizations to exhibit the might of this gender that had been increasingly classified as inferiors for a long time by the Vietnamese cultural society. However, just like in the North, there were women who were however restricted to support roles including transport, repairs once again due to the presence of military leaders who viewed women as incapable of performing efficiently at the battle front. In spite of proving those leaders wrong on many occasions’ women were still related to support duties during the wars. They however never stopped pushing for inclusion in active duty as they wanted to exhibit just what they were fully capable of.
The history of Vietnam shows that women played a great role in many of the wars that the nation has been involved in. From fighting the Chinese, to fighting the French and finally to fighting the Americans, women have played an active role. Some of the greatest women warriors and fighters in the nation include the sisters TrungTrac and TrungNhi, (who are often hailed as often hailed as the Hai Ba Trung), Madame Trieu (Ba Trieu), Nguyen ThiGiang and her sister Nguyen ThiBac. It has however been seen that the cultural characteristics in the society particular the role of women on this society had something to do with the huge enthusiasm showed by Vietnamese women when it came to actively participating in the war. The enthusiasm and determination showed by Vietnamese women in participating in wars was driven by the realization and understanding that actively participation in the wars would symbolize that they were capable of the same duties and activities as men including physical combat and should thus stop being treated as second class citizens or as a weaker gender and gain the same status in the society as the man.
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