WASHINGTON — After three new female veterans won election in Tuesday’s midterms, two female Democratic lawmakers are again pushing the Department of Veterans Affairs to change its motto to “be more inclusive to women.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Kathleen Rice, both from New York, introduced new legislation Thursday for VA to update the current mission statement from “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” to a less gender-specific phrase.
The current motto comes from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, as a charge for the country to look after the veterans of the Civil War.
Rice and Gillibrand charge the current language “fails to recognize the service and sacrifice of the thousands of women in uniform.” They are proposing changing the language to “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
VA officials in the past have strongly objected to the idea, arguing in favor of preserving the historical accuracy of Lincoln’s quote.
The lawmakers called that opposition disappointing.
“As women continue to play an increasingly vital role in our armed forces, they’ve become a larger and more prominent part of our veteran community,” Rice said in a statement. “But unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs mission statement simply does not reflect that reality.
“The brave women who have worn our nation's uniform and their families deserve to be equally embraced by the motto of the very agency meant to support them.”
Officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have made the motto change a key focus in recent years, working with lawmakers like Rice to find ways around VA’s opposition.
Allison Jaslow, former executive director of IAVA, said the motto change is needed to send a message throughout the department.
“With its motto, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is telling women veterans and survivors of fallen women service members that they aren’t seen, that they don’t matter,” she said.
“Modernizing the VA's motto isn't a matter of political correctness, but respect for the over 2 million women veterans in America today.”
An estimated 345,000 women have deployed overseas since 2001. About 16 percent of the active-duty force are women.
Four female veterans are currently serving in Congress: Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in the Senate; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in the House. All four served overseas In Iraq or Afghanistan.
McSally’s bid for Arizona’s open Senate seat is still being tallied. If she wins, the number of female veterans will jump to at least seven next session, with Democrats Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elaine Luria of Virginia and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania winning contests this week.
The legislation faces long odds of passage given the short schedule remaining for Congress this year, but its introduction now could build additional attention on the topic for next session, when a Democratic-led House may be more receptive to the change.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.