Women's Studies Program welcomes Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer

Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer

August 9, 2011

Social activist Margarethe Cammermeyer spoke before a large and enthusiastic audience of students, faculty, staff, and community members this spring. The Women’s Studies Program, in conjunction with Department of History faculty and the Intellectual and Cultural Affairs Committee, hosted her visit on campus. A Norwegian immigrant who moved to the United States at the age of 9, Cammermeyer has become an important voice on issues relating to women in the military, as well as to gays and lesbians.

A career military nurse, Colonel Cammermeyer served 14 months in Vietnam, including eight months as head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit. She describes this period as “the most extraordinary experience any military nurse could have been a part of.” She and her husband settled in Seattle, Washington, after her Vietnam service. In 1968, she was forced to leave the military when she became pregnant, because women were not permitted to have dependents. After the regulation was changed in 1972, she returned to the military in the Army Reserves, ultimately achieving the rank of colonel in 1987.

Colonel Cammermeyer divorced her husband and eventually came to recognize that she was a lesbian. In 1988 she accepted the position of chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard. In 1989, during an interview for top-secret clearance to apply for the War College, she told the military that she was a lesbian and was subsequently discharged. She immediately challenged the discharge and the ban on homosexuals in the military, and after more than two years, the judge found the policy was unconstitutional and based on prejudice. She was reinstated in the National Guard in June 1994 and resumed her previous position as chief nurse.

She has received numerous awards and honors, including the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service (Vietnam), Nurse of the Year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (1985), and Woman of Power by the National Organization of Women. The National Education Association recognized her autobiography (with Chris Fisher), Serving in Silence (1994), by naming it an outstanding book on the subject of human rights in North America. Actress Glenn Close starred as Cammermeyer in a made-for-television movie, “Serving in Silence,” which received three Emmy Awards and the prestigious Peabody Award.