Service above Self

Women Veterans in American Politics

Erika Cornelius Smith

The 2018 midterm elections were both record-breaking and pathbreaking. Americans elected four women to the Senate along with twenty-four women to the House. At the same time, nearly two hundred veterans were on ballots across the country, including a dozen women with military service experience, three of whom won their races. Two years later, female veterans campaigned for office at every level—including a run for presidential nominee of a major party. Service above Self: Women Veterans in American Politics explores this burgeoning area of interest by looking closely at the careers of former servicewomen in US politics.

Despite the growing presence of women candidates with military service or intelligence backgrounds in elected office throughout the United States, this is the first book to examine the motivation, messaging, and connections between military and public service for female veterans. Erika Cornelius Smith unravels the stories of the many trailblazing women—including Elaine Luria, Chrissy Houlahan, Elissa Slotkin, Tammy Duckworth, Joni Ernst, Martha McSally, and Tulsi Gabbard—and points the way for future studies.

“In Service above Self: Women Veterans in American Politics, Erika Cornelius Smith offers an engaging and timely look at how military service shapes political ambition and personal narratives for women running for and serving in Congress. This well-researched book adds to the growing literature on the role of gender in public service in both elected and appointed positions as well as public policymaking. As more women run for and win political office, prior military service is a relevant aspect of political leadership. It will inevitably become more important as the potential for electing women at all levels of government continues to expand.”

—Lori Cox Han, professor of political science, Chapman University, and author of Advising Nixon: The White House Memos of Patrick J. Buchanan

Inspired by their diverse paths to politics, the unique ways in which they communicate their experience, as well as their policy positions, this work explores several important questions: What motivates servicewomen to run for office? When do their backgrounds in military service align with their mission for public service? How does experience as a servicemember affect their ability to navigate gendered stereotypes about female candidates and foreign policy? The answers revealed in their personal and professional narratives shed light on this historically significant cohort of political leaders.

The first scholarly synthesis of women with military, quasimilitary, or intelligence backgrounds competing in political campaigns, Service above Self examines a long history of US women who served in or adjacent to the US military and translated those experiences into elected office. It is the first analysis of how they transitioned from national defense to public service—and what they did when they got to Washington, DC.

About the Author

Erika Cornelius Smith is director of alumni relations and engagement at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio.