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The women wearing hats and high-collared Victorian dresses in an old black-and-white photo could be the members of a ladies’ social club — that is, if it weren’t for the shotguns they’re holding in their white-gloved hands.

A rare Civil War-era photo of the Union Army Women’s Volunteer Unit, the picture was unearthed by Cyma Rubin, the curator and designer of “The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute,” which illustrates how the role of women in the military has changed over the course of nine wars, from the War Between the States to the Iraq War.

“The women in the Civil War came from such diverse social backgrounds,” said Rubin. “The volunteer unit was made up of debutantes and prostitutes. Women with families went to the camps with their husbands. During World War I, lady Marines did office work. In World War II, women drove vehicles behind our lines.”

Although women aren’t part of direct combat in Iraq today, they serve in the military police, man checkpoints and do other dangerous jobs.

Besides the enlisted, “The American Soldier” celebrates the war photographers, many of whom were women. Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a senior staff photographer at the Dallas Morning Herald, won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the invasion and aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She photographed such atrocities as children’s corpses, but her shot of two American soldiers rescuing an injured Iraqi against the backdrop of a flaming car shows a moment of valor.

“There’s a great art in all of this, but it’s also telling an important story,” Rubin said. “That moment, when a photographer pulls the shutter, is forever captured in time. The still image is still there. You can look at a photo 1,000 times and still see something new.”

“The American Soldier” project began in 1995 with a New York Times Magazine cover article, “Untold War Stories,” that Rubin read. “I thought, wouldn’t this make a great exhibition about the American soldier,” said Rubin, who at the time was deep into research for an exhibition and catalogue of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs she was organizing. “I put it in a file I call ‘One of these days,'” she said. “Three years ago, I decided to pull it out.”

This story first appeared in the August 3, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Harrowing images of war are nothing new. While there are plenty of those in the exhibit, Rubin also wanted to humanize the soldiers. Musadeq Sadeq’s shot of a female soldier at a ceremony commemorating 9/11 with a tear rolling down her face, and Diaz Meyer’s image of a soldier crying and kissing a letter from his wife, resonate on a personal level. “I wanted to get as close as I could photographically to the American soldier,” she said. “I tried to bring an aspect most people don’t know about.”

Rubin, a veteran Broadway producer, was always interested in photography. She produced “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” which explored the stories behind six Pulitzer-winning photos and won a 1999 Emmy award for best documentary.

For “The American Soldier,” which is cosponsored by European Aeronautical Defense and Space-North America and Business of Entertainment Inc., she pored through archives at universities and historical societies, private collections and news services, eventually choosing 116 images from a field of about 5,000. The exhibit is at the Hot Springs Convention Center in Hot Springs, Ark., through Sept. 30, followed by North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Oct. 12 to Jan. 13. After that it will travel to the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport and the Women’s Military Memorial in Arlington, Va.

“I always felt beholden to the soldiers for providing a sense of security,” Rubin said. “I never felt until recently that we were wasting lives. Now I feel they’re being wasted. But the exhibition is totally apolitical. It’s just telling a story.”

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