H -NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Minerva@h-net.msu.edu (July, 2000)
Sandra C. Taylor. Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi
Minh and the Revolution. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press,
1999. xii + 188 pp. Ilustrations, notes, glossary, and index.
$29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-7006-0927-X
Reviewed for H-Minerva by Donna Crail-Rugotzke ,
Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the
Taylor describes the quickly disappearing history of Vietnamese
women's participation in the Vietnam War. Using Taylor's own oral
interviews, Rand Corporation interviews and a variety of archival
sources, the author explores women's contributions to and sacrifices
for an independent Vietnam. While Taylor focuses mainly on armed
women, she does not ignore women's other contributions nor does she
sugarcoat the dangers faced by these women. Despite the pain this war caused
many women, Taylor views Vietnamese women as active participants in their
own history and not as victims.
Taylor provides the reader with a brief history of Vietnam from the
dynasties to the French period. Traditionally, women enjoyed few
rights in Vietnam. They were bound by Confucius' teachings which
demanded women's obedience to their fathers, husbands, and sons.
The French colonial government did not challenge women's
subordination to male relatives. Instead, the French added to their
misery by mistreating and sexually exploiting women laborers. Like
Vietnamese men, women would have many reasons to oppose French rule.
Communists appealed to them by advocating independence from foreign
dominance and supporting women's rights. Still, women were bound by
traditional gender roles and feared accusations of immorality if they
"consorted freely with men" (p. 23).
Surprisingly, Vietnam has a long history of women fighters. Taylor
briefly describes the historical and symbolic importance of the
Trung sisters, who defeated the Chinese army in 40 C.E. During the
twentieth century, Vietnamese women fought the Japanese, French,and later,
Americans. According to Taylor, women played an increasingly important role
in defeating the Japanese during World War II and seizing power from the
French. Yet, the bulk of this work focuses on women who fought against the
United States and South Vietnam. She explains who these women were and is
careful to identify regional variations in the tasks women performed.
Taylor notes that many of these women were young women or girls. They were a
valuable asset because they were easy to train and were not as likely to be
burdened with family responsibilities. The fact that American soldiers did
not regard women and girls as threats increased their value as guerrilla
Not all female supporters of Vietnamese independence fought. Women made
excellent porters because they could carry heavy loads over long distances.
In addition, they freed men to fight by taking
men's places in the fields. In South Vietnam, urban elites,
Buddhists, and other Non-Communist women contributed to the "third
force." These women advocated peace, participated in
demonstrations, and in a few cases, immolated themselves. Although
Americans had once advocated the third force as the best alternative
to colonialism or Communism, Taylor blames the U.S. entry into the
war for eliminating this alternative (p. 92).
After examining the lives of today's Vietnamese women, the reader
may wonder if the result was worth women's sacrifices and suffering.
>From the beginning, women risked capture, torture, and death. This
war also took a personal toll on female participants. Many women
were torn between their duties to their families and their duties to
their nation. The Communist Party encouraged women to hold off on
love and marriage until after the war ended, which proved too late
for many. Although the war is over, the Vietnamese are still
struggling with malnutrition, disease, and environmental
destruction. Women face additional burdens such as limited
educational opportunities and domestic violence. Moreover,
Vietnam's official histories ignore women's contributions to
Although many women paid a hefty price for their involvement in this
war, Taylor cautions readers against viewing these women as victims.
Throughout the book, Taylor depicts women's creativity. For
example, women compensated for the scarcity of weapons by making
their own (p. 89). Vietnamese women also are actively preserving
their past and aiding other women. For example, the Vietnam Women's Union
encourages reunions for "long haired" warriors and has trained women in new
technologies. Taylor leaves the reader with an image of women helping women
When analyzing her sources, Taylor is her own biggest critic.
Throughout this work, Taylor questions the accuracy of statistics
provided by Communist sources. She also identifies some of the
problems presented by her interviews with surviving "long-haired
warriors" from Dinh Thuy. Some of these women were quite old and
did not remember certain events. Other interviewees may have
remembered their deeds as particularly heroic because of "their
sense of selves," Vietnamese gender roles, and women's position in
the history of their country (p. 18). Taylor also makes no claims
that her interviews are representative of the entire Vietnamese
population. She states that her interviews did not "cover the entire
country" and that she was unable to "interview people at random on
the streets" (p. 7). After reading this book, it is easy for the
reader to assume that most of Taylor's interviews were from Dinh
Thuy. If this is not the case, Taylor should have included a table
or footnote with the number and locations of her interviews.
This work does suffer from some minor organizational errors. For
example, readers may find Taylor's use of the term "long-haired
warriors" confusing because different definitions appear throughout
the text. Taylor initially uses "the appellation given to women who
had fought for their country during the war with the United States"
as a definition (p. 2). Yet, this reviewer got the distinct
impression later in this work that long-haired warriors were women
from the Mekong Delta (p. 72). Fortunately, she eventually explains
the different definitions and uses of this term (p. 79). For future
editions, Taylor may want to move this information into one of the
first chapters of the book.
Despite these minor criticisms, this book is definitely worth
reading. While the oral histories may not be 100 percent accurate,
they provide insight into Vietnamese women's lives. Readers will
gain a greater understanding of women's struggle against their
nation's enemies and the cultural constraints placed on their lives.
Indeed, this work will make a valuable contribution to women's and
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