Though women now make up 14 percent of the U.S. military, the percentage of women who join veterans organizations remains much lower.
It’s an issue some local leaders say they want to address, as they hope to extend a welcome to all veterans.
There are 355 female veterans in Washington County, out of more than 6,000 total vets.
Across the state of Ohio, out of 877,994 total veterans there are 72,120 females.
Barb Handschumacher, 66, adjutant for American Legion Post 64 in Marietta, said sometimes women might not feel totally welcome in a male-dominated post.
“It’s difficult to be a woman in a man’s world,” she said. “But I have been very active in the American Legion.”
Some women who didn’t feel they fit in at a more traditional post have even formed their own over the years.
In 1946, the Greater Cincinnati Women’s Post 644 was formed when female veterans returning from World War II didn’t feel understood or accepted by the men in the traditional American Legion posts. When the post formed nearly 70 years ago, there were 10 women’s posts across the state of Ohio. Currently, Post 644 is the only surviving women’s post.
Post 64 Commander Regis Kern, 67, said the “number is low” for female members there.
“I think we have around five members that are women out of 800-some members,” he said.
Handschumacher said she has found oftentimes male members prefer to do things their way instead of asking for input from female members.
“Sometimes you can tell there’s a difference; (the men) would rather do things their way and exclude the women,” she said. “But in the end, we all served our country.”
She added that some of the younger men seem a little more accepting of a female presence.
“I think the younger men are more accepting of the women than some of the older ones,” Handschumacher said. “They’re more used to working with women in the day-to-day workplace. There are more women veterans closer to the front lines (today) than when I was in (the military).”
Kern said in recent years it has been difficult to reach not only potential female members, but younger veterans in general.
“The problem is trying to attract the Iraq and Afghanistan (veterans),” he said. “I’ve tried everything to attract younger members but haven’t been successful.”
Likewise, VFW Post 5108, 319 Pike St. in Marietta, has low numbers of female veterans.
Quartermaster Ronnie Davis, 67, VFW Department of Ohio judge advocate, said there are fewer than 10 female veteran members.
“It’s safe to say (there are) eight,” Davis said, adding there are around 730 members overall.
Kari Pfeifer, 43, quartermaster for VFW Post 2920 in Crestline, said her post has about 12 female veterans but there doesn’t seem to be a dividing line between the men and women.
“During meetings at the department, everyone co-mingles,” she said.
Pfeifer also serves as the VFW Department of Ohio Women Veterans Chairperson.
Davis added that most of the male veterans have become used to a female veteran presence.
“You’re used to seeing females,” he said. “Now you use the word ‘comrade’ (at meetings) and that takes care of everybody.”
R.B. Morris, 69, commander for American Legion Post 750 in Lowell, said there are only three female members at the post.
“There’s one veteran and two active duty,” he said.
Morris said he isn’t sure why there are so few female members, but there could be a reason.
“There just aren’t that many around Lowell,” he said. “I don’t know a lot of women veterans.”
Pfeifer said being one of a few females in her post doesn’t bother her.
“I’m pretty fortunate that everyone I’ve met so far has accepted me as a member,” she said. “They teach me the way the VFW works. I think the VFW is very accepting of women veterans.”
Pfeifer was in the service for 21 years in the U.S. Air Force and said she is accustomed to a large male presence.
“It’s something you do learn; it’s a male dominated world,” she said. “You do learn how to take it. There are a lot of laws that protect everyone from (derogatory) comments. I think the military is doing a good job making sure the laws are followed. Now women are allowed into jobs that are combat related now…As long as you’re able to meet those (job) requirements, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do it.”
Likewise, Davis said he has always had a high regard for women in the military.
“I had a lot of respect for women in Vietnam,” he said. “They were in the thick of things, they were on the front lines…They put their lives on the line too.”
Pfeifer said one possible reason for a lack of new memberships in most veterans organizations is because of a lack of promotion.
“The veterans agencies don’t promote what they do,” she said. “They just do it. We need to let (veterans) know what we do for the community and charities…and what we do for veterans.”
Kern said that there are a few things he might try to attract new members to Post 64.
“I think maybe having an open house, maybe opening our doors will attract members,” he said. “We’ll also try some new events to attract younger people. I’d love to be able to attract more men and women veterans. I think if we had some younger people, we might attract more.”
Karen Kish, assistant director of communications for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, said outreach is something all veterans organizations can do to attract more members.
“(Each of the organizations) need to work together,” she said, adding that competing isn’t the answer. “Work with them, even partner with the VA. (Collaboration is) what has been successful with us.”
Davis and Pfeifer worked together Tuesday afternoon at Marietta College to make sure student veterans learned about services the VFW offers for all veterans, and Pfeifer said outreach is key.
“We try to look at that avenue to make sure student veterans know we exist and can help them out,” she said.
Davis said the key is to look forward to the next generation.
“We need younger veterans to take over,” he said. “We need veterans to help veterans…We gotta take care of each other.”
Pfeifer said veterans organizations are there to serve all veterans regardless of gender.
“It’s not a man’s organization, it’s a veterans organization,” she said, adding, “A veteran is a veteran.”