In the 1960s, when women in the United States sought the ever-elusive proverbial voice, there was one woman in a jungle crying out to be heard. Ironically, when the fiercely independent Doris “Lucki” Allen volunteered for service in Vietnam at the age of 40, her life and work began to personify the second wave of the feminist movement.
She was a rare breed of female for her time, self-actualized with a bachelor’s degree from the Tuskegee Institute [now Tuskegee University]; Allen was an African-American aspiring to reach her full human capacities. In many ways she embodied the empowered woman that Betty Friedan would herald with the 1963 publication of “The Feminine Mystique.” But despite her accomplishments and years of specialized military training, when she arrived in Long Binh as an enlisted, Spc.7 intelligence analyst in the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, Allen found herself faced with the same struggle Susie Housewife endured on the home front — the struggle for women’s equality and the search for a voice.
“When I first got to Vietnam it was a matter of ‘You women shouldn’t be here in the first place, now we have to protect you,’” said Allen. “They didn’t like us being there. The nurses were fine because they were in a traditionally feminine role. Men would say, ‘We need the nurses.’ But here come these other women, taking up the good jobs that the men had comfortably sitting behind a desk.”
The WAC, a women’s branch of the U.S. Army, was created May 15, 1942 and disbanded in 1978. Although records are sketchy, roughly 700 WACs served in Vietnam, but at peak strength, only 20 officers and 139 enlisted were in Vietnam at one time. The majority of women were in clerk-typist positions, but other women served in journalism, communications, personnel, finance, automated data processing and intelligence.
While women in the states burned their bras in the name of women’s liberation, Allen’s efforts in support of anti-communist forces took on a pivotal role with the Tet Offensive. Three months after arriving in Long Binh, Allen began advising supervisors of a potential large-scale attack planned for January 31, 1968. Her report “50,000 Chinese,” which referred to the amassing troops as Chinese instead of Viet Cong, fell on deaf ears. The report was submitted 30 days prior to the Tet Offensive, which occurred January 30, 1968, and is today remembered as a major intelligence failure of the war.
In “A Piece of My Heart,” a collection of stories recounting women’s experiences in Vietnam, Allen said “I guess the thing that really sticks about Vietnam is knowing you give them reliable and valid intelligence, but biases can creep through. There are a lot of things that they might have been biased about with me. I was a specialist as opposed to being a sergeant. I was black instead of being something else. I was enlisted instead of being an officer—especially in the milieu [Army Operations Center] where there were only two enlisted people, and I was a WAC.”
Allen believes that people are going to be people when it comes to bias. She learned to be aware of prejudice, to recognize bias and always know it was “them” and not her.
“I asked myself why they weren’t listening and why I wasn’t being heard” she said. “I just recently came up with the reason they didn’t believe me — they weren’t prepared for me. They didn’t know how to look beyond the WAC, black woman in military intelligence. I can’t blame them. I don’t feel bitter.”
When asked what advice she would give to a young female soldier today, Allen said, “first and foremost, she must respect herself. She has to be aggressively assertive.” Like life’s happiness itself, Allen said “you can’t always do it alone, but no one can do it for you,” emphasizing that women must also do their best to be team players.
Allen currently lives in Oakland, Calif. She retired as a chief warrant officer after 30 years of military service and three Bronze Stars. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology and was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca in 2009.