VA Weighs Ditching Lincoln Quote for Motto That's Inclusive of Women and Minorities

Pedestrians walk in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building.
Pedestrians walk in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A change could be coming this year to the Department of Veterans Affairs' motto, a quote from Abraham Lincoln that critics say is not inclusive of women, people of color and LGBTQ veterans.

VA officials have been consulting with veterans to get their feedback and proposals to make the motto more inclusive, according to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. The current motto, taken from Lincoln’s second inaugural address and was adopted in 1959, pledges the department will "care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

"The most important thing for me here is that the change is informed by veterans' views, and so we've been going through the process of talking with ... consulting a wide range of adults, including women," McDonough said during an interview Thursday.

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He said an announcement would be made "when it's ready, but it's not ready."

The move was opposed by the previous administration. But shortly after being appointed VA secretary by President Joe Biden, McDonough pledged to make the department more inclusive and welcoming to veterans, including women, veterans of color and LGBTQ vets who may previously have felt excluded from VA care and services.

The quote was uttered by Lincoln on March 4, 1865, and versions of it have appeared at times on unofficial VA correspondence, programs and paperwork, and in one case even an official statement.

They include: "To care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families and survivors;" and "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise 'To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan' by serving and honoring the men and women who are America's veterans."

Advocates for the change have said the motto, which is displayed at most VA facilities, including offices, hospitals and cemeteries, is androcentric; makes female, gay and transgender veterans feel unwelcome; and could serve as a barrier to health care and services.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., sponsored legislation in the House in 2020 to change the motto. The measure did not get through the Senate.

"In keeping with Lincoln's focus on equality for all, I'm sure if he were alive today he would say women should be acknowledged as well," and shouldn't be left off the motto "just because they didn't serve back then," Rice said during a hearing in 2019.

McDonough's predecessor, Secretary Robert Wilkie, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, opposed the change and took steps to broaden the motto’s use, adding plaques and historical interpretive signs at VA cemeteries to explain how the quote came to become the department's motto.

Wilkie said the words should remain as they stand "so every generation understands the origin of America's progress in becoming the most tolerant nation on earth."

"The words that brought us here should not be diluted, parsed or canceled," Wilkie said during a memorial unveiling in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in 2020.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that changing the motto would cost roughly $1 million over the next five years to cover replacement of plaques and other displays of the verbiage.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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