Advocates for female rights and lawmakers first introduced the idea of changing the VA motto to be more gender inclusive in 2017.
The current VA motto, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan,” has remained the same since it was installed on plaques outside the VA headquarters by administrator Sumner Whittier in 1959. The phrase is taken from President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech from March 1865, toward the end of the Civil War. This part of his speech was addressed to convey the importance of the American government taking care of the soldiers who had been wounded during the war, and to help the families of those that died serving.
Legislation to change the motto was introduced to the House and Senate in April 2021. The previous efforts in 2017 to Congress and former VA secretaries did not prove fruitful. VA Secretary David Shulkin started using gender-neutral terms when speaking about the department, but didn’t take any action steps to change anything. His successor Robert Wilkie was against altering the motto. His approach focused on explaining where the motto and the VA originated from. He went as far as to have signs put up at all national veteran cemeteries, and a plaque near Lincoln’s tomb in IL for this purpose.
Proponents of the legislation are looking at the new presidency as a chance to try again, though it is not yet known whether President Joe Biden or VA Secretary Denis McDonough are in favor of this change.
In a news conference in April 2021, McDonough did respond that he would be looking over this legislation. This is in part due to a task force put together to help with VA equity, access and to improve inclusion. The task force has until July 31 of this year to focus on this goal.
Many have asked why changing the VA Motto would be beneficial. Advocates and female veterans have voiced that there are many issues within the VA dept., such as prominence and sometimes acceptance of sexual harassment, and poor health care for women’s issues. The change would be more symbolic than anything, as to both female service members and veterans, the motto is further representation of a sexist and exclusionary culture.