June A. Willenz
1924 - 2020
Devotion to human rights and social justice for all peoples characterizes June A. Willenz’s long career as a global human rights advocate. At a time when women were not in leadership positions, Ms. Willenz served as Executive Director of the American Veterans Committee (AVC) for 40 years bringing into veterans affairs the AVC’s unique perspective of “citizens first, veterans second.” Forging a veteran’s voice in the civil rights movement, and giving a civil rights dimension to the veterans sector, she became the first woman to head the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Task Force on Military/Veterans Affairs. She was also the first to chair a Presidential Subcommittee on Disabled Veterans, where she was cited for “outstanding leadership.” Conferences on then-divisive issues were organized by Ms. Willenz. This included a conference on the Draft, which facilitated national debate and new policy directions. She developed the first Legal Aid Project for veterans with discharge problems, and worked with Congress to create special offices for women and minorities within the Veterans Administration.
Ms. Willenz’s book “Women Veterans: America’s Forgotten Heroines” that documented a pattern of neglect by government agencies received broad attention resulting in congressional hearings and remedial actions. Her suggestion for an Advisory Committee to monitor the ongoing status of women veterans was mandated by Congress. To bring recognition to this group, she initiated efforts to establish a national memorial.
The AVC created a “Women in Military Service for America Foundation,” endorsed by Congress, which led to the building of the National Women Veterans Memorial. These events prompted the World Veterans Federation (WVF) to invite Ms. Willenz to address its special session on “women in war” in 1982. In her presentation, she challenged the WVF to establish a Committee on Women to explore the situation of women caught in war and how women could contribute to the search for peace. The WVF created that Committee and chose Ms. Willenz as its Chair.
Chairperson Willenz provided leadership to the Committee for 22 years, as it influenced the Federation to champion the human rights of women, in peace as well as wartime. She became a non-government organization (NGO) representative for the World Veterans Federation at the United Nations where her activities brought the perilous status of women in armed conflict to the attention of the NGO community and United Nations’ agencies. This has encouraged research and study as well as activism to mitigate the consequences of war for women.
Ms. Willenz’s efforts contributed to having women in armed conflict issues included in the 1995 UN Conference on Women’s Platform for Action. One result has been women’s increased influence in the international arena, as noted in UN Security Council Resolutions and actions that now seek to include women in peacemaking and peacekeeping activities as well as post-conflict reconstruction strategies.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2011.