National League of Families: Courageous wives turn frustration into activism during Vietnam War

Womens History

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The women in the ‘National League of Families’ were tired of being silenced and wanted their husbands home. They defied all odds, some calling them the ‘First Ladies of America.’

During Vietnam, husbands, brothers and fathers were torn away from their families. 

Mary Halyburton, is a P.O.W. wife who recalled to 8News a time she describes as the toughest. Her child was just five days old when her husband went off to war, and when he returned, she was 8-years-old.

The women in the 'National League of Families' were tired of being silenced and wanted their husbands home. They defied all odds, some calling them the 'First Ladies of America.'

All those years she never heard from him to know if he was dead or alive; just a single letter was mailed. 

While men were away fighting, women were expected to play the traditional role of caretaker. Thousands of soldiers were missing in action and tortured as prisoners of war, but it was swept under the rug.

“The word to me was not to be anywhere or say anything,” said Andrea Rander, P.O.W. wife.

Women were told to stay quiet, but they became fed up. Everything changed in 1969 when a small group of women, including Phyllis Galanti of Richmond, formed the National League of Families. Their mission was to rescue their husbands and together they broke barriers doing it, encouraging women to speak up.

The women in the 'National League of Families' were tired of being silenced and wanted their husbands home. They defied all odds, some calling them the 'First Ladies of America.'

“I just had the need to do it,” said Rander. “I thought to myself, ‘somebody has to do something.’ We were pounding on doors, talking to other people who we thought could really help us and nothing was happening.”

In her words, women were silenced under the Johnson Administration, but a new energy shifted under the Nixon Era. Richard Nixon listened to women and allowed them to be on television, attend congressional meetings, and travel to meet with international leaders.

Heath Lee is the author of “The League of Wives,” out in April, and the curator of a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

“These women had never been honored,” said Lee. “They had really still been told to keep quiet and stay in the shadows. I think with movements like ‘me too’ and ‘times up’, people really want to hear women’s voices.”

The voices of these wives were heard, and they successfully rescued their husbands from the war.

The museum exhibit in Richmond is filled with clothes, jewelry, P.O.W. bracelets, and other artifacts to share the story of these brave women. 

“Looking back its kind of like one of the places where it all starts, one of the first groups like this,” said Lee. “Formed by women, led by women, and they changed military protocol and saved their husbands.”

The League of Wives exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture is open to the public until September 2. 

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