Benjamin Garrison: The plucky Ed Sulkowicz ‘African American Lady’ is the soldier’s soldier

A debate has raged in parts of America over the last year about names on Army bases that honor women and minorities. Chief among them is the debate over “Ed” (born Emma Sulkowicz) and…

Benjamin Garrison: The plucky Ed Sulkowicz ‘African American Lady’ is the soldier’s soldier

A debate has raged in parts of America over the last year about names on Army bases that honor women and minorities. Chief among them is the debate over “Ed” (born Emma Sulkowicz) and “Julia” (born Wanda Jeanette or Mary Jeanette), who have become the poster children for those who believe the ongoing controversies on army bases reflect a harmful prejudice against women and minorities. A true pioneer, the 58-year-old Ed was an undergraduate who was recruited to Harvard and became the first woman to earn a masters in sociology there, the first in the country to obtain both the Ph.D. and a master’s degree in the same degree, and the first person of color to earn a bachelor’s in the history of Harvard University. Her doctorate is in creative writing.

A 25-year veteran of the military, the 35-year-old Julia is the first woman to fly an F-22 stealth fighter and a four-star general. Her pilots include women, and Ed testified in the House and Senate against the Pentagon policy of barring women from service in combat. She has graced the cover of Time magazine, in part because she is a good example for troops — but it also helps that many veterans and active military spouses are worried they would be limited if their spouses had to fight for their promotions. Critics of Ed and Julia believe they are part of a harmful pattern of stereotypes that women and minorities face at the best and worst of times. Even if the naming practices change — and they won’t — these controversies will continue to create conflict.

I can’t discuss the specifics of the controversy on Fort Campbell for Army Human Resources Instruction Training Manual 101-105 with confidence because I was unaware of the controversy until a reporter called.

“Ed” earned her degree at the age of 50, and graduates are supposed to be honored by the Army but not to be identified in public honors. She doesn’t wear an olive green unit patch.

Her parents, Chris and Mike Winski, who were recently buried in what is now East Tennessee, said their daughter never looked at becoming an officer, and wasn’t particularly proud of her accomplishments, although they were surprised when she graduated from Harvard.

“When she graduated she graduated from Harvard with honors, and everybody said, ‘I’m going to Harvard,’” Mike Winski told me. “She was proud of that, but I don’t know if that’s what she was really proud of.”

Wanda Jeanette was not interested in big awards or military insignia. She said she didn’t want to lead a parade and “I never made too much of a big deal of it.” She didn’t want “to be Sheryl Crow on tour.”

“There was always something up my sleeve,” she said. “I always had the secret.”

And she said she resisted the complex story that circulated through her home, marriage and her early adulthood, naming other famous soldiers who attended at Harvard with her and other soldiers. She was even referred to as “the baby” — a name she refused to agree to.

There was something up her sleeve. I always had the secret.

It was John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Wanda Jeanette said, that propelled her into fighting as a spouse, and before that working for the United Way. She wanted to work “for somebody,” and because she was a combat pilot, she decided to file a discrimination lawsuit for her husband against the Navy in 1993. (They settled a year later).

I wouldn’t want to be named “Mary Jeanette” or “Wanda Jeanette,” she told a reporter last year.

She had prepared a statement, and I took notes: “Ed is an impressive person with amazing accomplishments. She has called it quits on military, but wants to remain in the Army and for those of us who don’t know about the battles and difficulties that soldiers go through, Ed’s name is the only way we can remember Ed Sulkowicz. Ed is a go-getter who fought for women and minorities. She is no Mary Jeanette or John F. Kennedy. She is just Ed.”

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